Cotton Pickin’ Cotton

We were driving thru New Mexico to the Texas border. There’s no wall in that area, so we were free to pass where towns have names like Clovis, Muleshoe, Whiteface, Sundown, or Cotton Center. (Wall comment is humor.) Yolonda was driving when I first noticed sheets of white ice, which had formed on the north side of plants, tree limbs, and anything sticking up out of the ground.

 

Note wind turbine base in background.

While the scene was pretty, it looked like an ice storm had passed by. But the look wasn’t quite correct. As we continued, we drove into a thick fog, or some sort of cloud.

That part of America is a windy, unpleasant, high-n-dry desert. Why anything, much less cotton, grows there is a mystery to me. Cotton may have a history of controversy in America, but we all have items produced from cotton in our homes, and yer probably wearing some now. We were driving through the midst of cotton country, which extends from California thru the southern USA up to Virginia — once called “King Cotton” for a good economic reasons.

 

Cannot see the tops of the huge wind turbine electricity generators.

When I saw my first cotton field, I asked my friend to pull over. I jumped out of the car, crawled through the fence, and picked some raw cotton. I was 19 and a damn-yankee (Yolonda insists that’s one word) who’d never seen it growing. I knew little about cotton. Just that is was a textile and that it had a lot to do with The Civil War, The South, a guy named Eli Whitney, and his invention called a gin.

I understood that gin was an alcoholic drink, a card game, and was a word for to come up with, as in gin up. Later I learned what it had everything to do with cotton. A cotton gin is a machine that removes seeds, husks, and foreign material from cotton. Big machines are used to harvest it. Then, it’s taken to the nearest gin where all the seed stuff is removed. The seeds are used for cotton seed oil, but I don’t know if any other part of the plant is used for anything but compost.

 

Cotton fiber frozen to a bush.

As it turns out, the ginning of cotton is a messy process as it draws cotton fibers through a screen thingy to sift out the seeds and husks. A lot of stuff, especially cotton fiber, ends up floating in the air. It looks like clouds or fog. When I say a lot, I am talking majorly huge acres of cotton fiber floating all over the place. If you’re down wind of one of these gin things (as my daughter is), and allergic to atmospheric dust (as she seems to be), good luck.

After pulling off onto the wide shoulder of a Texas road, I walked about 30 yards to a brushy area for a closer look. I had no worries about critters like snakes, it was too brutally cold, as it often is in the unfriendly climate of the Texas Panhandle. I saw the white ice on branches, limbs, tree trunks, and  rocks. Closer examination revealed clear ice covering something white. I broke off a small thin branch and split it open.

I looked around when I realized that I had solved the mystery. What appeared to be fog, was not. It was cold and humid with moisture in the air, but the “fog” was actually teeny bits of cotton fiber and seed husk floating in the air. Agricultural and mechanical air pollution was being generated by the harvesting and cleaning of cotton with gins. It’s all done right there before the product is sent off to further processing and turned into consumer products.

The combination of a north wind with the right atmospheric conditions of moisture and freezing temperatures combined with the white cotton fibers floating in the air. As this combination moved south, it hit upon north-facing vegetation and virtually anything sticking up into the air. As this mini ice storm passed over, it placed a layer of white cotton fiber on the limbs and branches, then covered it with water which froze to form a thin layer of ice. The result was a glistening combination that looked like frozen snow on one side of trees, even down the trunks. It was frozen air pollution.

 

Ice on cotton on wood.

Joanna Gains of the HGTV show Fixer Upper uses cotton plants for decoration. Here is a link if you want to see, or even buy some (Click here for link). I don’t cotton to the décor, myself.

And then there is the story of the lady who was upset with Hobby Lobby (or some such place) cuz she felt cotton for décor is racially offensive. Cotton did not cause slavery, but the invention of Whitney’s cotton gin did contribute to the significant expansion of the cotton industry and slavery during the first half of the 19th Century.

A little cotton pickin’ music for your listening pleasure (CCR doing a Leadbelly tune).

Be curious as you look both ways.
Mind the gaps and watch for snakes when you stop to smell the roses
or admire nature’s work in concert with local farmers.

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A Memory: The Silence of Darkness

A Memory: The Silence of Darkness

It was a cold northeastern Pennsylvania night. I don’t recall the day of the week, or even the year, but the season was tucked into that idiom wrongly called, the dead of winter. There’s nothing dead about it.

I was in my teens and still living with my parents. It was late night and snow had covered the ground one day in the early nineteen-sixties. While night, the reflections from the snow allowed me to see everything, although it looked like a blue-tinted black and white photograph.

While all years of my life were important, those teen years are prominent memories. I still recall how I felt then, but now it’s hard to describe. I’ll never feel like that again. The wonderful adjectives of youth applied to me: vital, vigorous, and energetic; yet so did lazy, horny, rebellious, and impulsive. I would not say pensive or thoughtful. Yet, there was that one night.

 

As I walked through deep snow above my ankles, a powdery white mattress was laid out around me in all directions. The white snow was tinted cobalt blue by the moon-lit night sky. None of the snow was marked by footsteps or car tires. The blanket was pristine. The cemetery across the street was a charming and peaceful sight. I loved the sight of the snow, the reflection of street lights with a wintery halo, the contrast of red brick buildings with lines of white where snow landed. Even boarded-up windows seemed fitting to this natural artistic sight. What I saw made me feel good. I was happy, but thoughtful about what I saw.

If anyone saw me, they might assume I was lonely. I was not. Never. While my teen years presented me with daily challenges, feeling lonely wasn’t one of them. Even back then, I treasured my alone time. I have searched for more nights like that one, but I will never discover such a night again. Nature’s art is often so fleeting.

I may have been troubled by any one of the issues I thought life changing. Today, I recall few of those traumatic teeny-bopper problems. But, I can still visualize the night. While I have long since been free of my adolescent burdens, I remember. I didn’t feel cold. I felt both my pending freedom and a connectedness to my surrounding, to the night, and to the silence. And to the darkness, the light, the snow, and a sweet silence only night offers.

I was wearing plain old brown leather oxford shoes and white socks. My pants were a bit too short and much too snug: a style of the times. Adults thought my hair too long. It was a little greasy, and it hung down to cover part of my face. I didn’t wear a hat. My outer layer was a hand-me-down, black, Navy-surplus pea coat – unbuttoned and hanging open. The collar was up.

As I picture that night, I feel my experience. That not-to-be-forgotten night was like a photograph taken with my eyes and ears, sensed with my tongue’s taste buds. I could smell the clean crisp aroma of the night air. It is imprinted in my memory: a serene moment, fifty-some years ago. A semi-normal teenager, I realized that something remarkable was happening around me. I liked it and I wanted to share it with you.

The day’s white powder parted like a soft curtain as my feet gently led me forward. Sidewalks, streets, and any surfaces open to the sky were topped with the blueish flakes. No cars passed. The plows would not be out until early next morning.

Months before this night, trees had lost their leaves. Now, white fluff-covered bare branches stretched skyward like arms reaching to catch descending flakes. Evergreens bore much thicker and fuller sparkling white coats over their needles, a weight they endured with their strong, flexible, down-sloping boughs. I sensed a soft chill as a gentle breeze brushed the powder from trees onto me.

As snow clouds passed, I saw the clear night sky of spiritual proportions. A nearly-full moon illuminated the earth with light reflected upward by snow. Even with the light in the sky, billions of stars floated above me, while below them the sheen of fresh powder glistened. I was so young, yet I intuited the unimaginable enormity of what was around me. I could sense the sheer winter-night beauty of it all. I felt comfort in that notable moment. The night and the silence were etching a memory no artist or photographer could duplicate.

The silence was purposeful and reasoned. A quiet so intense the night air was a sharp penetrating stillness that muted other sounds. All was perfectly still. No movement, not even a hush. It was an absolute quiet: a silence so powerful I imagined intense peacefulness within me.

I stopped. Didn’t move for a long time. I listened for sounds of anything, silent sounds. I heard nothing but silence itself. Very still, breathing shallow, listening intently to what was the most peaceful moment of my life as my personal Sounds of Silence came from nature. I was with my friend Darkness, where I felt destined to be. I experienced sensual pleasure in the absolute beauty of that cold winter night.

I saw silence in the stillness as nothing moved. The world had stopped. I tasted tranquility as the clear, dry night-air slid over my tongue. As the still coolness flowed into my nose with its chilled crisp fragrance, I smelled a fresh aroma only nature could provide to a young mind open to such images. I have aged. But, this memory remains set in the mind of a teenage boy.

Slowly, I started to walk a bit farther. Then stopped again. I knew this was exceptional. Then I walked more, and I stopped again. I do not recall walking away or going home. The memory leaves me standing there, taking it in.

I didn’t know that this memory would be discovered and retrieved by my muse over half a century later. Said she, “Up now, Lad. And write in yer book, before ‘tis lost again in the disorganized gaps of your mind.”

If you have no time for the video now, please come back to watch it. It’s worth it.

Live in the present, but look both ways,
to the past for who you were, and to the future for who you’ll be.
Mind the gaps, but fill in where you can.

Signs Yer in Texas: Part II

Who needs memes? While walking and driving around The Lone Star State this past and pleasant October, I was intrigued by reading signs that revealed a certain something about the place. I don’t know if it’s the mentality, the mixed cultures, humor, a form of irony, or what natives might call, “a Texas thing.”. But, I sensed a latent message. I’m still uncertain exactly why I felt the vibe I did. Maybe it was me. At the time, I was trying to make an important life decision.

When 85 is not fast enough.

Signs convey messages. Texas may have more highway signs per road mile than any other state. Speed limits range from fast (70MPH) to ridiculous (85MPH). Ubiquitous municipal signs warned of rules (some designed to aid the foolish or intoxicated). I found humor everywhere I looked.

Squeezed into a few square miles of New Braunfels, Texas, is a huge waterpark (Schlitterbahn was closed by October), and two rivers used for floating on tubes while getting shit-faced-drunk (the Comal and Guadalupe rivers). It all happens between May and September when the temperature has the natives counting the number of days in a row over 100-degrees Fahrenheit. It’s hot. Even the water is too damn hot to feel good. The thousands of visitors must pay to park in huge lots or obtain city permits to park on the streets because it is so congested with fun seekers during the hot summer months.

 

What can I say? It’s Texas. I married a Texan and technically, I suppose I am one, albeit an unwilling transplant from Yankee-land. Our three young’uns (and a passel of grands) were all born there.

 

This is for street parking. They are all over the place.

Empty parking lot at Schlitterbahn Water Park.

Even though I’ve lived in Texas more than half my life, the state and many inhabitants continue to mystify me. While I don’t currently live between the Red River and The Rio Grande, I now plan to move north of Austin in less than a month (reason for blogging about it).

Nice zombie family, but a little quiet.

Native Texans, and many transplants, love the state. My wife likes to tell me, “you can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the girl.” She sees that as a good thing. I think she’s brainwashed. I confess that the state and its inhabitants pose a certain mystique, but I don’t buy into the Texas is special nonsense.

That is called a sigh-reen in Texas parlance. Used for tornado warnings.

In 1964, I asked a friend who was home in PA after Air Force Basic Training in San Antonio (where I was soon headed) what he thought of Texas. He replied, “I think we should give it back to Mexico.” I won’t go that far. But there have long been grumblings among some Texans favoring secession from the Union and returning to the status of an independent Republic.

Grin and roll your eyes (I do), but some Texans consider that rational thought. How secession worked the last time apparently notwithstanding. I refuse to ponder the complications of such foolishness. But, all the noise makes for good news and political fodder. It’ll never be more than that, even if some are serious.

They know El Paso is not on the coast.

As the USA’s second largest state, in land mass (behind Alaska) and population (California is first), Texas has an interesting history. A little over 180 years ago, it was Mexico. The people living there at the time, along with many additional (illegal?) immigrants from the United States, successfully rebelled and it became an independent Republic. The irony of the times was that the Mexican government was trying to end all the immigration into Mexico of people from the USA. The eventual annexation of Texas as the 28th state in 1845 led directly to the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Mexico was pissed. I think they still are.

Air conditioning is everywhere.

I want to dispel some myths about Texas.

It is not a law that all Texas public school students stand and recite a pledge of allegiance to both the American and Texas flags, but many Texans believe it is and should be. Texas did not add “under God” to their pledge to the Texas flag until 2007, and while the pledge says “indivisible,” it’s sort of true that Texas may choose to divide into several states. Maybe someday, but don’t hold your breath.

The Texas flag is a big deal. That seems odd, since they did not have an official state flag from about 1879 until 1933. Many Texans believe before then only six flags flew over Texas, maybe because of the name of the theme park (Six Flags). It was nine. There were others (unofficial) here and there, but nine flags.

Many Texans also think theirs it is the only state flag allowed to fly at the same level as the USA flag. Not true. Any state flag may be flown at an equal height to the American flag. The US flag must always be to the right (viewer’s left) of the state flag, per normal flag etiquette. It’s common to see the Texas flag being displayed with no US flag in sight. I never ask why.

I developed a pet peeve regarding the Texas flag. When I see it flown upside down, especially by a native-born-and-raised Texan, I want to fix it. It happens more than you’d think and in places it shouldn’t. I have had people argue with me about it, insisting the red stripe goes up and the two star points up were correct. The white bar goes on top of the red – up. The single point at the top of the star should point up, not look like it’s standing on its dang head. And yes, I have pulled off the road to tell them: car dealerships, housing and apartment developments, and (my favorite) schools.

Wrong! and not a US flag in sight.

I’ve no idea why some folks think it more patriotic to fly dirty, old, torn, and ripped flags. It is not. It is bad taste and poor flag etiquette, but I will not go so far as to try to convince those people of anything. Many of them recently thought America was invading during a military exercise and was coming to take their guns. Speaking of guns, getting shot happens a lot there, but that is due to the large population.

Texas is second, behind California, in the number of murders. Texas has a slight edge in the per capita murder rate. To be fair, things seem to be somewhat under control even with several major mass shootings. The fact is that Texas ranks only 30th among states for gun ownership. With only about 36% packin’, it’s a good deal safer than many other states. Texas has stricter concealed carry requirements than does Washington State, and probably takes this subject more serious than many give them credit. Especially now, following the shootings at the church in Sutherland Springs.

“Old Sparky,” in which 361 prisoners were executed between 1924 and 1964.

One last interesting comparison between Texas and California is in the use of capital punishment. Texas leads the nation in executions while CA has the most people on death row. I suppose somebody must be number one, but I am mystified as why anyone would take pride in either statistic. Some do. Not me.

This must be problem. The river is not that deep, so breakage is likely.

 

Thousands of cars. Any chance these folks are busy? Sign says 24/7!

 

Seriously? How many times must they tell you?

 

The most common sign on the walk up from the river.

 

So many signs for this?

 

They look like boats. They’re trash cans.

Ok, last two have nothing to do with Texas.

There is another word for these.

Quoting Pat Conroy

Quoting Pat Conroy

I’ve been reading more Pat Conroy. I continue to be impressed with his ability to tell the story and to talk about his life and the lives of others entwined with his. Mostly, I treasure and envy his awesome craft of writing, his vocabulary, and how smooth it flows as I read. I have no right to judge the writing of anyone, much less a man with such a gift.

What I feel as I read his words is not so much judging (as in “love it”). It is about me and my experiences, feelings, and thoughts about a man who was born less than one year before I was; who grew up when I did, but under very different circumstances, and who seems to have lived a life that I oddly, but resonantly, relate to in many twisted and indirect ways. Autobiographical fiction; strangely, I get it.

Except for graphics, the following quotes taken from his writings are my notes. Any error is mine. This was me stopping the flow of my reading to write down Pat’s words. Cuz, picture it, me saying “wow” while reading and then grabbing my notebook.

I have been using Public Library e-books lately, so I cannot highlight as with paper books or on my Kindle app. Yet, writing them down in my notebook may be better for increased mental indelibility and the likelihood of my sharing.

I grouped these by category and added my comments. I realize that context is lost by such grab-and-go’s, but I like them. The photos and memes are not my work, except to click “copy as.”

About writing, reading, and writers

“Fear is the major cargo that American writers must stow away when the writing life calls them into its carefully chosen ranks.” (Agree. I do. I must.)

“…nothing is more natural in his (Tolstoy) world than the mysterious and necessary attraction of men and women…their attraction for each other and impending marriage seems part of the design of the Universe, as right as the stars that make up the belt of Orion.” (Pat read War and Peace three times.)

“Teach me how to die.” (This is one of those phrases when I think, “I wonder what he meant?” Context!)

“I want to always be writing the book I was born to write.” (Exactly.)

“But I’m speaking of all the yesterdays that will not come again.” (Old guys say cool shit like that.)

“…that I get to live in the Old New York Book Shop on the night of a book party.” (This was Pat’s idea of heaven after he died. That book store is no longer there, but it was a big deal to him. Do you have a place like that? A memory so profound and pleasurable that it would do for a permanent state in an afterlife?)

“Nothing is more difficult to overcome than a childhood of privilege….” (Or abusive parents.)

“My childhood taught me everything I needed to know about the dangers of love….” (I intend to use this when I write more on the paradox of love.)

“We got some things right.” (About writing, the publishing writing world, and himself.)

Regarding Norman Berg, Pat’s friend and book rep., “He was a hard man who dismissed fools without conscience or regret…. He was an easy man to dismiss, and a hard one to love.”

“Know everything. Feel everything. That’s your job as a writer.” (Said Norman Berg to Pat, quoted by Pat.)

“The tribe is contentious, the breed dangerous.” (Regards writers and why he claimed to have few friends among them. Pat Conroy had many friends, and many of them were writers. I don’t really know enough writers to have an opinion, but the ones I know, while seemingly neither contentious or dangerous; most are unapologetically opinionated. Norm Berg’s job description?)

“The world of writers was a snake hole, a circle of hell – a rat’s nest and a whirlpool and a dilemma – not just a world.” (Pat was opinionated. I wonder how he felt about French writers? See is time in Paris, below.)

Pat’s youth and college days

“Two pillars of authority, patriarchal influences shaped my childhood. Dad and the Catholic Church. Punishment of anarchy. Contempt for anyone different.” (Mine, too.)

“There was an amazingly limitless capacity for ruthlessness at the heart of the family of man.” (Regards all of life, but learned from the plebe system. This is from The Lords of Discipline.)

“What will this make of me? A man, or a monster?” (Regards surviving his freshman year in college)

“A prize that exacted an awesome tithe of spirit from those who loved it.” (The Lords of Discipline)

“It was sublimation and surrender to the efficacy of denial.” (Pat had something specific in mind, but I can apply this to so many times in my life.)

“The history we are born into always seems natural when we are young, but it seems misshapen and grotesque as the winter years come upon us.” (I have had similar thoughts, but my experiences were a little less profound.)

New words for me

Three of many words I learned and liked reading Conroy: décolletage, oleaginous, and unctuous. (I am smiling and could go on and on and…)

His time in Paris

“Parisians and polar icecaps have a lot in common except that polar icecaps are warmer to strangers.”

“France is the only country in the world where friendliness is one of the seven deadly sins.”

(To be fair, Pat loved his time in France and cherished the memories. But why deny the French acting so “frenchly”?)

 

In our reading life, we must look both ways.
In writing, mind the damn gaps.

Poetry – Imagine This Dream

Is this life a mere dream,
a trance of yours, of mine, a life of ours?
Is my dream just a story,
well designed by mankind?

Must we just die, then and only
to taste the fine wine of the gods?

From some deep sleep must my mind to awake?
Is my dream a divine test, another deal to fake?
Is it only my dream; or ours, this life we make?

Right or wrong, this dream’s much too real,
there is no mistake, and there is no such deal.

What are the answers?
Is truth standing naked?

Nightmares I’ve had, it’s the same for you.
Be there no gods; many, or few;
life is still true. I can feel just how real
I love this dream, in good times and sad.

Yet my time to dream has mostly gone past,
a good life I’ve had with my role in our cast.

Imagine our mysteries and mystical rants,
not like some koan or in magical chants,
Be slave to no master, to no god’s self-will.
Seek no hereafter, no heaven nor hell.

Love life right now, and be fully aware,
soon it will happen, you’re no longer there.

If only the end is all that you seek,
one you’ve not seen, but do certainly dream,
please don’t follow the alluring mystique;
as it has been, my death’s my last scene.

So now in this life, be totally free.
The best of our dream’s what we honestly see.
Imagine all life surrounded with love,
something we feel, not from above.

When life seems too dark
and the future’s too bleak,
Let’s try to imagine this dream we all seek.

I long for our times,
entwined with each other,
seeking my true-love from a Mother who cures,
where light still finds its shining way in
and there’s good in all of creatures,
as Nature herself cares for all things.

From the beginning, now near to the end,
as close as we are, with you my dear friend,
imagine us living this dream we call this life.

Now and forever, true sisters and brothers,
it’s all that we have; right here and right now,
so let’s be so kind and love all that’s nature,
and push toward each other—
All the love we can find.

By Bill Reynolds 10/23/2017

 

Inspired by Lennon’s, Imagine.
Supported by my afflatuses.

 

Learn from the past, plan for the future, live in the present.
That’s looking both ways as you mind the gaps.

 

Texas-Veggies (lovely and not-so-nice plants)

Texas has many beautiful plants. Bluebonnet flowers (Lupinus texensis), for example, are among the brief-flowering, native, spring wild-flower group that grows on roadsides and wild in open fields – stunningly beautiful. They can be cultivated in home gardens. It is the state flower and my wife loves them. We have bluebonnet photos, paintings, and glass art around our home.

Texas longhorn in a field of bluebonnets

She has requested that her ashes be scattered on a field of bluebonnets in Texas. The best bet for that is along the roadsides where their growth is encouraged. It may be the state flower, but fields of beautiful Texas wildflowers have been sacrificed for apartments and parking lots. A similar almost-as-pretty plant, called Indian Paint Brush, can be seen in the same areas.

The natural deep blue color of the bluebonnet is rare in nature. Seen in such great numbers, it is a striking sight often captured by photographers and other artists. One can even sign up for courses in bluebonnet or wildflower photography. The brief season for flowering, around March and April, varies by location and is affected by year-round weather.

Seeds cost about a penny each on Amazon; but like the Texans who claim them, this annual has a mind of its own. They are stubborn and difficult in their own way. Plant seeds in your garden and you may get nothing. Then a year or two later, have a crop pop up from the cracks in your sidewalks five feet from the lovely raised bed you prepared for them.

Bluebonnet seeds are both sensitive and tough. The hard outer-layer must be penetrated by wind, rain, and a difficult climate over months or years to germinate. This happens to the thousands of lively plants seen each Spring. I’ve never thought to smell one of the wildflowers. But while some say it has no aroma, others have described it as a “sickly sweet” smell.

Bluebonnets can be cultivated, but like many things Texas, they can take-over, get in the way of progress, and be obnoxious with excessive pride. Or, they can be the most beautiful of plants with the capacity to bring comfort and the artful beauty of nature into the lives of all lucky enough to see them in full bloom.

When in such glorious, colorful presentation, Texas’ fields of wildflowers attract people with children and cameras, both professional and amateur, who traipse into the fields in hopes of mixing nature’s best with human beauty to record the loveliness on a warm sunny day. Please do, but be wary. In addition to its snakes, tarantulas, chiggers, scorpions, and many other creatures of the stinging, biting, or blood-sucking classes; there may be some stinging life of the vegetation variety lurking just below the comely and attractive surface of flowers. In Texas, one must deal with reality or experience the consequences.

Prickly Pear Cactus with fruit

When my wife and I speak of the prickly pear, we seldom add the word cactus until some innocent soul asks, “What’s that?” One must not consider one’s self as a true Texan, native or immigrant, until one has felt the unforeseen touch of this ubiquitous and annoying plant. The painful and itching touch of prickly barbs that grow abundantly on most varieties is a lesson to be learned from experience. I swear that these pricks can reach out and swipe the legs of any innocent passerby at will. I can hear the merciless, nasty chuckles of the evil bastards even now. There are some needless varieties.

Mule Ear Prickly Pear Cactus

To be fair, the nopales cactus is the most common form and can easily be found throughout desert regions (or anywhere) of the southern US, from Florida to California. It has beaver tail-like thick leaves (although I have seen other shapes, such as the mule-ear variety), and the term prickly pear actually refers to its fruit, a bright neon colored ball that screams “eat me” to cattle. The cow eats it, fails to digest the seeds, passes same with a nice moist cow patty, and a new plant is born. Millions of prickly cacti have started life, literally in a nutritious pile of cow shit.

Cow Patty

The good news is that both the leaves and fruit of the prickly pear plant are edible for both animals and humans. I have eaten the leaves (needleless or needles removed) cut up in scrambled eggs, and I would again if it’s on the menu. Eating the red fruit has been described as a cross between all-natural bubble gum and watermelon. I may try it. The liquid is used for many tasty dishes (see recipes on line).

Stinging Nettles

While Texas probably has the most prickly-pear cactus, it has other unpleasant surprises for your body growing among the lovelies of the field. Stinging nettle is common, annoying, and can be found in other places around the world. More is hidden, lurking in the fields, but other demons are not hidden at all.

Mesquite Tree grove

When Lady Bird Johnson said to, “Plant a tree, a bush, or a shrub,” I feel certain that she did not mean for us to plant a mesquite (pronounced meh-skeet), which can be any of the three. I don’t understand why anyone would plant a prickly pear cactus in their flower bed as a decorative or ornamental, but they do. Anyone, and in Texas for sure, who would deliberately plant a mesquite is either some type of dirt or plant scientist doing research, or a fool. The well-deserved nick name for the mesquite tree is the Devil Tree.

If the normally unwanted cactus is a pox on the Texas landscape, the mesquite tree is a scourge. Yes, the bean pods are edible. The spread of this plague is due to the same pear chomping bovine eating the seed pods or beans, and then crapping out the impossible to digest seeds. Seeds in pods (or beans) can lie dormant for up to 40 years waiting for the right conditions and time to sprout. I wonder how many mesquites have spouted from the rotting carcasses of dead longhorns.

Mesquite seed pods

I have read that mesquite beans have a sugary coating making them quite tasty. I’ve not experienced that taste. Of the 40 species of mesquite, only 7 grow in Texas, the most common being the poorly named honey mesquite. Yet, of the 167.5 million acres that make up this state, honey mesquite flourishes on 56 million of those acres. That means that 76% of all mesquite in America is living in Texas. On any drive through the Texas outback, one can find standing dead mesquite, poisoned with spray herbicides. Owners will have the dead plants bull-dosed and burned. But, the mesquite will return. It’s not that easy to kill the Devil Tree.

Mesquite Tree Thorns

With roots to Hell (or to China, according to my wife), delicate feathery leaves similar to those of a mimosa tree, wood only good for burning in bar-b-que grills or just burning (yes, some shabby, not-so-chic furniture has been made), and nasty thorns up to 3 inches long; the Texas mesquite tree, bush, or shrub is here to stay – useless and as annoying as the sting of a scorpion, but going nowhere soon.

“A native Texan once told me that Texas is one of the most inhospitable places to humans on the planet, coming in just behind Australia. He said that because he believed that Texas has more poisonous critters, and more vegetation that has briars and thorns and poisonous saps than any other place on Earth – except Australia. I do not know if that is true, but I do know that Texas has its share (and maybe a little more) of all the things that man talked about.” ~ C E Clark, read more here.

 

In the midst of incredible beauty, look both ways.
Mind the gaps, the thorns, the barbs, and the stingy-thingies.

Watchout for Critters

Texas Road Runner

According to my on-line dictionary, “critter” is among the bottom half of words for popularity. Texas has them. Lots of them. Most aren’t human, they love it here, and many are annoying and dangerous. Texas wildlife is abundant and diverse, but “Critters of Texas” is also the name of a very large exterminating service. What’s that tell ya?

The Bugs and Bats

I’ve talked about the mosquitoes. Just a few miles west of were we stay in New Braunfels, TX, there are fewer flying insects to annoy us at night. The town of Bracken is there, and near that town is Bracken Bat Cave. From March to October, roosting in that cave is the largest colony of bats in the world: 15 to 20 million Mexican free-tailed critters (32 other species of bat reside in Texas).

Each Spring and Summer evening the Bracken bats exit the cave mouth, flying out in a dark cloud (which is visible on the FAA radar) as they go out for dinner (bats do not like to cook). They chow down on the menu of flying bugs after snatching them out of the air, and go all the way to Mexico and back each night. Thus, fewer bugs. The immigration folks don’t seem to mind. Apparently, they have no desire for our jobs and we sure don’t want theirs.

Crawling creatures, especially bugs, are in ample supply here. It seems like every kind of roach and beetle call the Lone Star State home. But the real scourges are invaders from South America – a tiny ant and a bee.

These Brazilian bastards are called fire ants because their sting burns like fire. They are fast, aggressive, prolific, fearless, and virtually indestructible. There must be billions of them. They range from North Carolina to Texas, and have been found in other places as far west as California. Fire ants are virtually everywhere in this state. Chemical warfare has failed. A species of fly has been imported that lays an egg on the ants. After hatching, the larva eats the head of the ant. Feel free to fact check that.

If you step on a fire ant den, they attack quickly and viciously. First, they will cover half your leg, then you’ll feel an annoying itch. Before you are fully aware of your folly, the stings are setting in and your language changes to the cries of the victim. Anaphylactic shock is common and about 5% of fire ant attacks in the US are fatal.

Even hurricane Harvey and all the flooding did little harm to fire ants.

View from our back deck. Chemical warfare on fire ants has failed.

Don’t even get me started on the killer bees, another gift from our South American neighbors.

The Snakes

I don’t like snakes. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s Eve and the forbidden fruit thing, but I have never been comfortable eye-to-eye with a long limbless reptile with no eyelids. It seems there are three kinds of snakes: non-venomous, venomous, and extremely venomous. Texas has an ample supply of all three. Even in mid-October, it’s still warm enough here for snakes, but I am not looking for that kind of companionship.

This weekend, we are on the outskirts of Colorado City, TX, just 30 miles west of Sweetwater, TX, home of the largest rattlesnake roundup in the country — probably in the world. I know snakes are virtually everywhere, I simply have come to associate Texas with snakes. A few years ago, my wife killed a coral snake in pool area of our back yard. We lived in burbs of San Antonio at the time. That’s too close.

The Lizards

Again, Texas shares its lizardry with the rest of the American Southwest. But one, called the horny toad (a name I have always liked), is as cool as it is ugly. My apologies to all supporters, students, and alumni of Texas Christian University (TCU), in Fort Worth, aka ‘Cowtown,’ for the disparaging comment regarding the attractiveness of their school mascot. I took at least 12 semester hours of master’s level coursework there. So, while I spent my time as a horned frog, and while have been called either a toad or horny, my time in your school was the one experience putting the two words together about me.

On my walk yesterday, I set out to find one. I did, but it was ‘itty-bitty’ (small). The state’s population of these harmless creatures is on the decline due in no small part to fire ants. It seems like the Brazilian bastards do not like harvester ants and the invaders destroy the native ants. Harvester ants are the main food supply for horney toads. Another problem for the lizards and the good ants is the continued prevalence and misuse of pesticides. But that is caused by ignorant invader toads of the two-legged variety.

Special Critters

These are the mysterious, adventurous, and lovely semi-wild creatures who refer to me as ‘Opa,’ and call Yolonda ‘Oma.’ More to come on that, but they also live in Texas.

When doing yer walkabout in Texas, look both ways,
especially in the wild.
Know this, there be critters lurking in the gaps, so mind them.