January 2018

This apparently blind porcupine was found wandering in an open upland on an exceptionally cold day.  Found with his supply of quills exhausted, perhaps he was recently forced out of a nearby cave by some intrepid animal (or group) suddenly in need of a better insulated den.  Porcupines generally have very poor vision, and a defensive mechanism that is particularly advantageous in close quarters.  These traits may have helped them find their niche in Central Texas caves.  Maybe humans too have found an evolutionary hidey-hole in the form of screen time.  I suspect that caves do not provide enough energy for evolution by natural selection to one day produce a blind albino porcupine, and hope the same for our virtual hovels.

This is an excellent winter for prescribed burning.  Rain in late August boosted soil moisture through the fall growing season, leaving strong fine fuel loads.  Plenty of multi-day stretches with moderately low north or south winds (and due reversals via shifty frontal passages).  Daily humidity recovery characteristic of area winters.  October and January offered essentially zero rainfall, creating a soil moisture deficit that above average rain in December could not offset.  Caves throughout the Austin area are notably dry this winter.  Those of us working in karst areas are privileged for our ability to conveniently venture into the root zone and have a look around.

A half century ago, Noam Chomsky proposed that human beings are born with the mental capacity to learn language.  We find evidence supporting the theory of an inherited Language Acquisition Device (LAD) in the innate ability of young children to learn language quickly via largely unconscious or passive processes.  It would take a much greater effort for an adult to master a new language, with the full complement and complexity of a grammar system and workable vocabulary.

Chomsky’s idea stunned the world.  What distinguishes human beings from other animals?  Is this an observable threshold between learned and innate cognitive capacity?  The LAD and its implications have been near the center of a half century of discussion.

Namesake behavior of Frostweed.  Several species of Salvia, including S. coccinea, will do the same thing in a hard enough freeze.


We have had some good hard cold days and nights this winter.  My hope is that this will weaken some of the noxious old-world bluestems that have been roaring north at an alarming pace from south Texas over the past decade.  Silky Bluestem and Kleberg Bluestem are visibly altering grassland habitats each year.  Most kinds of plant community succession, in order to be noticed, require us to design and implement sensitive monitoring protocols.  Others are obvious.  Hopefully the cold will render this particular transition a bit more subtle, and buy us a chance to brace ourselves against the onslaught.  To do so, we lean on high-diversity seeding as the crutch of the land.   All hands on deck!

We moderns spend a lot of time and energy in the verbal realms of our minds.  Meditation is an exercise in relaxing our mental grasp.  We learn to experience our lives from a stable perspective of silence and stillness, from beneath the fleeting cognitive phenomena of knowing and speaking.  Perhaps the sort of drudgery associated with restoration work can serve as a chance to practice holistic awareness.  Sometimes our drudgery must be brilliant, where discernment draws from an expansive ecological “vocabulary”.  Other times, our drudgery may be mindless.  Jam the shovel between the rocks… and again… and again…  Can we offer our full attention to a rote task?  Even where discernment is minimal, can we engage in mindful drudgery?  What are we digging for, between the rocks?  Some fertile plug of clay?  To create a small, low, open space?  For what transplant?  Can we dig for our own humility?

By now, many seeds have dropped, and we are past mid-way through the perfect time to sow.  Tall grama is having a very prolific year, and the seed is still hanging on the plant, fully ripe.

Perhaps we have other evolved psychological modules and mechanisms.  Perhaps our innate capacity to speak the conceptual world into existence is premised on our capacity to recognize, name, and thus engage with the various species that occur in our ecological context.  Perhaps we are born with a spatial-orientation module that is activated by surface water, food sources, and predator sign.  Such a discovery might not separate us from other animals (maybe it would do the opposite?), so perhaps it would not be so interesting to the heavenly masses.  We would apparently prefer to maintain our consumption of (or is it by?) technological disembodiment.  But how does the old adage go?  If you don’t use it…  maybe a blind cave salamander can remember the rest…


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