Messages from the Wild

[ Environment/Conservation ]

Messages from the Wild

An Almanac of Suburban Natural and Unnatural History

By Frederick R. Gehlbach

A composite, day-by-day almanac of the life cycles of a semiwild natural island in the midst of urban Texas.

2002

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Paperback

5 1/2 x 9 | 280 pp. | 12 line drawings

ISBN: 978-0-292-72838-7

Seeking a closer connection with nature than the manicured lawns of suburbia, naturalist Fred Gehlbach and his family built a house on the edge of a wooded ravine in Central Texas in the mid-1960s. On daily walks over the hills, creek hollows, and fields of the ravine, Gehlbach has observed the cycles of weather and seasons, the annual migrations of birds, and the life cycles of animals and plants that also live in the ravine.

In this book, Gehlbach draws on thirty-five years of journal entries to present a composite, day-by-day almanac of the life cycles of this semiwild natural island in the midst of urban Texas. Recording such events as the hatching of Eastern screech owl chicks, the emergence of June bugs, and the first freeze of November, he reminds us of nature's daily, monthly, and annual cycles, from which humans are becoming ever more detached in our unnatural urban environments. The long span of the almanac also allows Gehlbach to track how local and even global developments have affected the ravine, from scars left by sewer construction to an increase in frost-free days probably linked to global warming.

This long-term record of natural cycles provides one of only two such baseline data sets for North America. At the same time, the book is an eloquent account of one keen observer's daily interactions with his wild and human neighbors and of the lessons in connectedness and the "play of life" that they teach.

  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. Nature and Culture
  • Chapter 2. Winter Is Survival
  • Chapter 3. Spring Is Renewal
  • Chapter 4. Summer Is Melody
  • Chapter 5. Autumn Is Winding Down
  • Chapter 6. The Play of Life
  • Appendix: The Calendar
  • References

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I am one who cannot live apart from the wild. Natural values are important to me, particularly the reassuring cycles of wild lives. I am fascinated and instructed by nature's repeated patterns, because they are so ancient and work so well. I want to know how and why, and why humans respond the way they do. Nature's messages in the seasonal events of a forested ravine in suburban central Texas are the themes of this book. Time is the last thirty-five years of the twentieth century, when eighty percent of Texans live in cities that sprawl over 670 acres of countryside every day.

***

Growing up on the edge of the wild in Ohio, I roamed freely. Then, for a decade, I lived in the southwestern outdoors in summer but studied in tamer northeastern places in winter, dreaming of open-window connections and a walk out the front door into nature. One day, Nancy, my wife, and I found a seminatural landscape to call home at the edge of a forested ravine in suburban central Texas. We built a house and moved in November 1964. Our children, Gretchen and Mark, were born and grew up in that ravine community.

Because of its outburst of mourning cloak butterflies at the time of our discovery, Butterfly Hollow is the name we gave that first home. Soon, however, suburbia began to engulf the naturalness, which shrunk to half its former size in fifteen years. This hastened our decision to build again beside the promise of a wild sanctuary a half-mile away in the same ravine. Eastern screech owls nested next to our new house under construction, so we called the place Owl Hollow and moved in April 1980.

Our wooded property borders a ten-acre nature preserve shared in a homeowners association and adjoins additional private acres, mostly wooded backyards, that comprise the ravine. The land is in various stages of recovery after human impact, so there are overgrown remnants of pasture and cropland, old cattle tanks, a small public park, and some steep rocky slopes immune to commercial land gobblers. For me, this place is a small part of prehistory and a much larger exhibit of how humans change living landscapes.

The ravine is my living classroom, theater, art gallery, and concert hall. As an academic ecologist but a naturalist at heart, I've tried to blend a rational sense of data-keeping and analysis with intuition and emotional appreciation of this heritage. As Thoreau did in Walden, I try to learn from while learning about and being delighted by natural history, so I keep notes on almost daily sojourns in the ravine. These notes, both experiences and ruminations, are the basis of this book.

Among the natural and unnatural lives that intersect mine, I'm particularly drawn to the eastern screech owl's. This native resident is a special mentor. Its annual cycle involves many other species and furnishes seasonal anchor points about which I share experiences, including drawings. I'm partial to flying and crawling creatures, but the natural world always provides interesting and important messengers, if the object of one's search doesn't appear. My operating perspective is the whole Earth, in which the ravine is but a microcosm.

The following pages present daily and longer events introduced by monthly prologues. All were sketched as I experienced life's lessons, although I may assemble several years of the same message in recognition of naturally repeated patterns. My color photos are but a small personal selection of that nature. I want to relate what I've been taught about belonging. Like the biblical Job and modern prophets, I've found that humans would do well to listen to their wild elders.

Of course, this almanac recounts lives and events that are unique for one place and time, but the basic patterns—the messages—are universal as revealed by my experiences and those of other naturalists worldwide and throughout human history. The almanac format is important, because messages are repeated daily, seasonally, and in lifetime events. Besides, a wild dooryard is a delight to be cherished every day for its wonderment and refuge from cultural stress.

In the first chapter I briefly describe the ravine's space and time, and in the last chapter I reconnect its messages. Also at the end are selected references with brief identifying comments and a calendar of seasonal events with graphics of exemplary cycles and linear trends. The calendar recounts biotic and physical happenings, both natural and unnatural, that most commonly remind me of how and why I live here.

Species common names are the ones most familiar and descriptive to me, and in some places I give alternatives. Scientific equivalents, the most recent I know of, are in the appendix and index, although in a very few cases my experience with identity differs from others. I do not name human neighbors, who were very kind in talking with me and showing me things but had no idea I was writing about them. I also omit place names or keep them general to protect privacy.

Temperatures are in degrees Fahrenheit. Times are central standard (November-March) or central daylight savings (April-October). Weather is from my home forest which averages four degrees warmer and ten inches more precipitation annually than the official reporting station. That's because the ravine is part of a heat island created by suburban structures and activity and, at 650 feet maximum elevation, is 200 feet higher on an escarpment that lifts moisture-laden winds into the city's face, triggering additional rain.

Biosphere is the term for life's realm and is capitalized, because it is Earth's one inclusive community (ecosystem). I use Biosphere in the functional sense of our planet's interlocking biological and physical processes—its uncounted systems of relaying energy and recycling nutrients that I like to think of as the play of life. Although this play is unique in the universe as far as we know, its planetary theater, local stages, seasonal scenes, and actors are made of star dust like everything else.

About natural and unnatural (cultural) history, I distinguish nature's use of direct sunlight for energy transfers from modern humanity's reliance on fossilized sunlight (coal, oil, gas), because we are the only species that employs fossil fuels in ways that disrupt Biosphere function. Humanity began to separate itself from nature long before the industrial age, certainly, but its impact took an unprecedented major step with the widespread burning of fossil fuels.

By Frederick R. Gehlbach

Frederick R. Gehlbach is Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Studies at Baylor University.

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