Both this November and last have been bums for planting. A little too dry and too cool. New plantings seem to require a lot of watering effort just to have them sit there and do nothing. Wait a minute, you may think, plants do nothing all the time, that is all they do. However, I think that from our experience as humans we can tell that being healthy is not the same as doing nothing. I suspect that this is true for the rest of nature as well. I strongly suspect it. Central Texas typically has a winter dry snap that sometimes starts in November and sometimes starts in December or January, and maybe it is ok to plant woodies at this time, but for grasses and forbs on dry land sites, I recommend timing planting with wet spells in fall or early spring instead.
The second half of November is the best time for harvesting seed. It is a bonanza out there. Some people are saying it is a good year for seed harvest. I say it is an average year, and an average year for a good thing is a good year. So despite that I see it a little differently, I do not exactly disagree.
In the Findings section of a recent issue of Harpers, it was reported that, “People think of themselves as better than average because they think of average as below average.” I think this is a mistake. It is a common mistake. I think our value as human beings is incalculable because we come from the land. It is a very lucky heritage to emerge from the land with the full breadth of its intelligence, grit, and sensitivity. We are all the same in this way, and not just humans, but also every tissue and organ of us. And not just humans and every part of us, but also every other organism and every part of them, and their environments.
Every drop of water, and grain of sand, and star.
Not buildings though, or parking lots. Those can be priced, and I suspect that only by gross errors of accounting, in this late hour, are they likely to outmatch the value of their razing. I strongly suspect it. Maybe you see it differently, but maybe you do not exactly disagree. If you share these concerns, or something like them, there are a number of ways you can participate.
October is a good time to be outside. It is a good time to plant. You can get away with watering less than in September, but there is enough time before a freeze to get some root development, which begets plant establishment.
Opposites come up together. The physical properties of nature play out in human lives and the trajectories of human cultures. Cultural polarity smacks of Newton’s third law. In America today (but not for the first time), there is a mutual feeling among one half of the voting populace that the other half is not just mistaken, but despicable. One man loses his media empire for the same offense committed by another who is elected president. Fear and change come up together. Progress is real.
It is a bit too early for most seed harvesting because the warm season grasses that dominate Central Texas savannas mostly turn ripe in November. You can, however, get some of the stuff that ripened in the summer, when for many it was too hot to collect. A few species hold their seed for quite a while after ripening, like Marbleseed. It started producing ripe seed around June, and by early October about a quarter of the year’s seed is still on the plant.
Silver bluestem is also available in October, if we get enough rain in the late summer and early fall. The rains of Hurricane Harvey made a good crop of Silver Bluestem this year, and boosted fall seed production across the board. Those rains also scoured some reveg projects of less than a year old, where White Tridens and Buffalo Grass (pictured above) performed especially well. Pedestaling occurs when soil is washed away from the base of the plant but roots remain, and this happened among bunch grasses (shown above), while Buffalo Grass in a low spot seemed to trap all or nearly all the sediment before it had a chance to move off-site. This is a case of functional diversity, both structural and biological, improving the resilience of the project.
The physical properties of nature pervade biological systems. In Everyday Survival, Laurence Gonzalez posits that life expresses the second law of thermodynamics despite the common sense appearance that life defies it. In summary, the second law of thermodynamics states that high concentrations of energy will naturally spread into low concentrations of energy. Our bodies collect and organize calories into tissues, and this process appears to run contrary to the normal march towards equilibrium that characterizes all matter in the universe. However, when we consume energy from our environments, we burn most it, and what we keep to actually build tissue is but a small fraction. Thus living things accelerate energy dissipation from that stored in our environments. We are just like other organized systems that form in nature for the same purpose, like vortices and lightning bolts. Gonzalez extends this idea to the apparent vagary of nature that is modern society; waste is deeper in our natural history than even life itself.
October is our last chance before winter to easily target non-native invasive deciduous woody plants. They will be harder to spot once their leaves drop.
Can our innate tendency to release energy actually benefit the land? Or are living things, along with all matter in the universe, predisposed to disintegration? We can build tissue while the world burns, so maybe a bit of both…
When our back is really against a wall, and there is nowhere left to go and nothing left to be done, we must be still. We have no choice. If we look carefully, somehow our life is always in this condition. Still, there is also always activity. So to realize the true urgency of our situation, we must not be tossed aside by necessary work. Our task in restoration is to find this stillness amidst the urgent needs of the land.
The recharge zone reach of Onion Creek ran dry for about 2 weeks in the summer of 2016, following a long flow period, and then went dry again for about 8 weeks in the summer of 2017. In late August, it flowed vigorously for another 5 days before drying again, and the abundance of aquatic life was truly remarkable. The water column was teeming with all manner of frogs, fish, and water bugs, pioneering this new and unclaimed water. The creek was characteristically indifferent to this zealous pulse of life. Even on this shallowly-crusted plane of hard limestone, soil moisture begets base flow, and without that, a flood is just a flash and nothing more.
We are nearing the season when the most hands will be needed. For now we can stake out the best quality seed harvest sites, the ones to monitor steadily because they offer the greatest rewards. Also for now, we can stake out the spots with the greatest need for seeding: those bare areas where KR died, tree canopy declined, or those few, small, anomalous extremes of fire severity or flooding that left patches of ecological opportunity in their wake. We have until about mid-October to find them, and once we do, it is time to stay with them until all the seeds each site can afford to lose have been collected and redistributed.
The shortness of the “tall” stands this year reassure us that seeded bare spots from last year persist at no fault of our own. It really has not been a dry year, but the rainfall distribution was never quite right for plant establishment. The sometimes 12″ tall stands of Maximillian Sunflower (that have been established longer than memory) tell the story well. Perhaps the months with the strongest pull over the thriving (or not) of native plants in Central Texas are October and April. If those are particularly hot and dry, spread your efforts elsewhere from planting.
If one is so inclined, the late summer is a good time to travel. Everyone knows that excessive heat exposure inspires surliness (though some are too surly to admit it), and if you get out a little early and come back after the worst is passed, you may lessen or stave it off a bit. Travel reveals the largely unconscious assumptions and habits of first the land visited and then in turn of home. The way people drive their cars, the things we are inclined to talk about, our most vital sources of pride, and subtle expressions of power or grace, all show in big and small ways, and all say something about who we are. These are mostly unintentional and unexamined habits, but they don’t need to be. We all contribute to the shared moral character of the cultures that we participate in. In the same way that travel can help us see our lives more clearly (by breaking us from the narrow vantage of our routines and associated coping mechanisms), it can also help us see how everyone contributes to a shared sense of place, normalcy, and decency. When we do restoration work together, we take that up with open eyes and open hands.
July was an excellent month for prescribed burning on the Edwards Plateau. There was a high potential to reduce woody plant cover. High air and fuel temperatures, good fine fuel loading, moderate low humidity, moderate low wind speed, consistent wind direction, and low live fuel moisture in Ashe Juniper all prevailed. Part of what makes current fine fuel conditions “good” is the continuity: the past few years have been wet enough for annual cool season grasses to punch into otherwise low fine fuel areas (rock/forby/dry sites), so even though it hasn’t been wet enough for grasses to get giant, there are more grass plants around due to several years of abundant seed and good conditions for germination and establishment.
This can also be a high-risk time to burn. Hot temps exact a tax on staff and gadgetry, and lower combustion thresholds. An integrative approach using fire physics and fire ecology found that fire models rely on overly simplistic tools to predict fire behavior, whereas any of a more comprehensive suite of physical factors can combine to determine ignition thresholds. That article cites a model that uses fine fuel load to predict juniper mortality, and another (paywalled) by the same lead author (Twidwell) cites that managers rely on live fuel moisture for the same purpose. Researchers have been pointing to a subtle confluence of factors that contribute to flammability and fire intensity for decades, but the practical reality is that fire managers can only effectively communicate a limited number of variables to working crews of fire fighters, who mostly already think they know everything, and need to be somewhat autonomous to function effectively. So as with other restoration tasks, we must stay close to our innate and underlying humbleness, which is to stay open to the vast field of latent possibilities that might erupt from the familiar graveyard that stretches out before us.
Restoration is practice for dying. Natural land and waterscapes, as comprised by their historic species assemblies, are failing all over the world. Does that mean they don’t matter? I hope not. What is happening now is not separate from what came before or what is to come. Restoration is a way of bracing ourselves, together with the land.
In restoration practice, we accept that we must do something that we don’t know how to do. This is the conundrum we live with. The system-response to our efforts is slow and ongoing and at least some aspects will be beyond our predictive capacity, and some even contrary to our aspirations. Nature is the process of self-determination, and yet, we have influenced natural areas, and we go on influencing them. We have to do something. Nature is a fountain of unconditioned energy, moving through conditioned forms, such as ourselves.
South of the Colorado River, live fuel moisture in Ashe Juniper has been exceptionally low. In fact, they are as low as any time on record except for the devastating drought of 2011. The early spring was dry, so the epikarst never had a chance to build a slug of near surface moisture before it got hot. Early fall (2016) was hot, and the late winter (2017) was warm too (climate change), so evapotranspiration rates died down later and picked up earlier than normal surrounding winter. Epikarst is the area below the soil but above the aquifer (water table) in karst areas (limestone with caves). Compared to surface soils, epikarst is less exposed to direct evaporative demand, but is partially accessible by plant roots and also contributes to deep drainage aka aquifer recharge. In the eastern Edwards Plateau, water has about a six month shelf-life in the epikarst. Normal rains in part of the spring may have obscured the reality of plant dryness, which is in part determined by the six month average, and in this case, down-weighted by the outer limit of that legacy.
Our spring transect data show enormous increases in canopy cover since 2012. As McPherson has pointed out, while extreme drought (2011) may seem like a boon that can slow or partially reverse the trajectory of woody plants encroaching grassland habitats, the net result is often the opposite. Apparently, mass plant mortality can lead to rapid increases in woody plant encroachment when followed by a series of wet years (2013-2016). Drought destabilizes the existing community, and then wet years strongly favor woodies. Luckily, this rapid increase is mostly due to new plants, not canopy expansion from existing trees, and new plants are more susceptible to change than old. So current dry woody plant/epikarst conditions may offer some relief to grassland habitats in this regard.
According to the forecast, August will be wetter than July. If not, the fall seed crop will likely be quite lame.
We cannot succeed in restoring ecosystems unless we take care of ourselves and each other in the process.
This site follows an array of ecological trajectories with an eye for intervention. Ecosystems can move in slow or subtle ways, which can cause the illusion of a stable state. Actually though, the land is always leaning. Every part of the land is leaning. Some parts lean in the same direction as others, or they can lean in opposing, or more often, cockeyed, directions. For the most part, “balance” does not really come up. Something can lean one way or another for a long time, and then just stand right back up, or lean the other way. If we are watching, though, we can time it just right and push it over the edge. Or on the verge of collapsing, we can swoop in and prop it up until it finds it’s feet again.
Take for example a grassland in Texas. A relatively cool and stable climate in the late Holocene has allowed an increasingly ornate landscape to form. Endemic species form in caves and on steep slopes and mild valleys. Suddenly, species migration rates accelerate rapidly and the climate warms (both associated with mass release of fossil energy for human economy). Several keystone animal species are lost (prairie chickens, buffalo) and many others are in sharp decline (migratory songbirds). At this point, parts of the system lean towards closed canopy woodlands, other parts lean towards dominance by exotic grasses. Both outcomes would make the system less resilient to the disturbances that are typical of the landscape, and would collapse a land that many declining species have come to rely on. Woodlands or exotic grasslands both have ecological functions and provide ecological services to society. Intervention, though, is to optimize the land for its own health and for the benefit of society. Fluctuations in weather provide opportunities to hold up the parts that sustain the historic assembly or undermine the parts that lead to a loss of ecological integrity. This site is about those parts, and the methods we use to interact with them.
Every aspect of the ecosystem has an edge. Maybe deer browse is limiting the food supply for migratory pollinators. Where is that edge? Can we push it? Maximilian Sunflower and Plateau Goldeneye grow fine, but more palatable species, like Cutleaf Daisy are uncommon, and Purple Coneflower is absent. Can we we manage the habitat to promote Cutleaf Daisy? Introduce Purple Coneflower? Beyond that, Compass Plant?
We can search for this edge, and cultivate our response to it, in every aspect of our lives. It is the present moment. It is an endless wellspring of energy that cannot be grasped.
What is happening now?
It is hot and dry of late, a good time for burning. There was a short burn window in late June (we didn’t catch it), and now another one starting about two weeks after the last rain. It wasn’t a big rain, a week or ten days may have been enough.
Live fuel moisture in Ashe Junipers is under 100%, which is good, they will readily combust with moderate fine fuels underneath if the wind and humidity are adequate to carry a flame front, but they are not dry enough for crown fire (tree to tree transmission). Ashe Junipers are highly drought tolerant (anisohydric), meaning they keep their stomata open during drought. They keep breathing (respiration) and making energy (photosynthesis) through the worst droughts, despite that they loose water in the process. As a result, live fuel moisture in Ashe Junipers can be a rough proxy for drought condition on the whole ecosystem, including the part of the soil profile that is colonized by roots. They keep pumping water no matter what, so if the land is dry, they are dry, and same if wet. Another woody plant that grows in about the same places as Ashe Juniper is Plateau Live Oak. Plateau Live Oak is isohyrdic, which means that it closes its stomata during drought. As a result, the live fuel moisture content of live oak leaves does not fluctuate with drought condition. It sort of holds its breath (to conserve water), and maintains a very low metabolic rate, a form of dormancy. Plant dryness in Ashe Juniper fluctuates with drought status, whereas plant dryness is relatively constant in live oak. Live oak mortality from fire is probably related to drought status, even though live oak plant dryness is not related to drought status, because drought stress on the plant (i.e. embolism, cavitation) makes it less resilient to additional stress from fire, just like it is less resilient to other stresses, like infection. Or so it seems. This may be true for several species, but Mountain Laurel? Who knows… A recent study found it is the least likely woody plant in Texas to die from drought.
The crop of Silver Bluestem seed is still standing but weakening, I suspect it produces seed in response to rain, so these past couple of weeks it has been just dropping seed but not replacing it. Texas Cupgrass seed is all dropped, not a one yet at hand. White tridens is ripe on shallow soils, but green on deeper clay. Wedelia is at peak ripeness, and Golden Gray Aster is getting close, it looks like it will synch with most of the White Tridens. Texas fescue still holds ripe seed.
The northward march of non-native invasive species continues… As of this spring, single plants of Kleberg Bluestem are almost common in the natural areas Travis County, but I have found no actual stands (clusters of several plants). Silky and KR bluestem are cured and have dropped their seed, but Kleberg is still green, which might indicate a longer treatment window.
Is restoration practice an expression of radical hope?
Can this practice chip the stone walls of self-interest?
Sometimes we have difficulty in explaining what restoration is. When we visit a doctor, they diagnose an affliction and try to cure it. Even if she doesn’t know if she will succeed, if she believes she might, it is her job to try. If our roof is leaking, we call for help and repair it. In neither case do we tend to get confused about whether this is some vain attempt to go back in time.
In some circumstances, it may be up to us to recognize if damage is too severe for repair and the building should be leveled. But what about for ecosystems? Is it up to us to decide to give up or not?
We are harvesting about 10% of 3 stands of Texas Fescue, which is having a bumper year. It will be enough for experimental use, and these experiments will occur on damaged habitats that will be restored in the process. This abundant time is a rare chance to access this rare plant. I am mostly focusing on documenting this species, so I can trace its response to weather, fire, and thinning treatments. I have found many stands. We manage the land holistically, so even if some treatment is not so good for it, we will not throw out the whole approach, but we may choose to moderate in certain places.
Ecosystems exist in deep time. So do our bodies, and behaviors. We have habits of thinking of our lives in limited ways, related only to what we can understand and see, and what is to be gained or avoided. Our lives consist of much more. The ability to conduct ourselves appropriately in daily life is reliant upon this selective ignorance. We ignore the vast obscurity surrounding our activity and attend mostly to what we can understand, and what fits with the stories that sustain us.
What are those stories?
The great lineage of natural history is evident in ecosystem restoration. There is no way to overlook the wild depth of nature. Our normal mental habits that help us manipulate and gain from things are poorly developed or absent. Perhaps there is nothing to grasp, just limitless interconnection and change. Perhaps this can work as a kind of training to see the mystery in other aspects of our lives. Even just sitting in a quiet room includes a vast and unknowable wilderness.
This June will be a good time to remove Johnsongrass. It may be too late to treat it with herbicides if seed has already started to develop, but if seed is not yet mature, the plant can be removed without the seed falling off. This can be an effective technique in early invasions, where most plants are coming up from seed in their first year and are not yet attached to extensive root networks. This is also the case where a seed bank remains following prior treatments.
When I close my eyes, vegetation spontaneously appears in brilliant arrays of neon purple and yellow, emerging from darkness in subtle flashes. Silhouettes of the species I have been working with flourish in these gardens, which grow on their own. Though I only recall noticing them in about the last 10 years, I suspect that they have been growing for a long time, and not just here in this mind, but from beneath it, and from beneath others.
The grass on most sites may be too green to burn just yet, but things look promising. Soil moisture is low as we move into the hot season, and so even if we get average rain, soil moisture will probably remain low. Fine fuel loads are not especially high, but dry conditions should lead to a good burn season.
Everything we see is a part of us. The color and light of vision occur in our eyes and reflect on the curved walls of our skull. Everything we perceive is limited to the container of our own body. Seeing this is one way that we can act as agents of the bigger world that we are a part of. Everything is a part of us, and we are a part of everything. Some difficulty or another is probably not so big a problem for everything, even if it feels like it is a problem for just us. So if we see and treat things with care because we know that whatever we are seeing is a part of us, our separate problems might not seem so big. Are they really separate? Are we?
This is quite an intense year for chiggers, even though the spring has been a little drier than average. Perhaps it is because the second half of winter was warm, or perhaps it is because the summer sun has yet to show the full merit of its dry pull.
It has been dry for about a month, seed from cool season seed might ripen earlier than last year. One of the things we look for to indicate seed ripeness is that the stem below the inflorescence is no longer green, but has cured to a straw color, so because it is dry, that may happen sooner than in a wet year. We have already been harvesting Texas Grama, and may be able to start harvesting Bluebonnets, other forbs, Ozarkgrass, Little Barley, Melica, Texas Cupgrass, and Carolina Canarygrass by the end of the month. Texas Cupgrass and Texas Grama are warm season species, but produce seed in both the spring and fall, and the rest listed are all cool season species.
The really special seed harvest potential this spring is from Texas Fescue. This cool season savannah species seems to occur mainly in dappled shade on the edge of oak mottes and partially wooded upland drainages. Our understanding of this species may be limited by scant evidence because it has been grazed nearly out of existence in most of its range. On at least one site, it is thriving in full sun. Does this indicate it’s habitat range is wider than we thought? Or is it just expanding in response to a few years worth of favorable conditions? Rainfall over the past few years (starting in 2013) has been strongly bimodal, or concentrated in spring and fall (as is true of historic rainfall patterns for central Texas but not during the period between about 1980 and 2010), so the fescue could have benefited from that… or the wet August of last year. Or it could be increasing in response to management. All of the sites where it appears to be increasing have been treated with prescribed fire in the past 10 years, have had either thinning (brush cutting) treatments or burns in the last 4 years (during this bimodal rainfall resumption), and have not been grazed in almost 20 years. Whatever the reason is, the stuff appears to be going bonkers. It actually showed up on a site where we routinely monitor seed ripeness, and adjacent to a restoration project site on a blown-out stock dam that we are cultivating as an enriched-diversity seed sourcing area.
In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he describes how ideas with more detail appeal to our story-making minds more so than those with less. However, with every additional detail, the story becomes less probable. The most general statement one could make, something like, “you know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is,” is also the most probable. The probability that you know something is happening but you don’t know what it is is about 100%. As the story becomes less general, it becomes more compelling, and narrative. For example, the story that “due to a few trends starting with the removal of domestic livestock, followed by management practices such as prescribed burning and thinning that increase light at the ground surface, and a resumption of bimodal rainfall that is characteristic of grassland habitats in North America, the rare Texas Fescue (Festuca versuta), is increasing in abundance,” is one we can all feel good about, and might be totally true. Every detail in that story that describes how and why a vulnerable species is thriving makes it more believable. Paradoxically, each of these details is also a filter that makes the story less probable, especially the detail that assigns causation. To say, “we took the cows off, which may or may not be connected to an increase by Texas fescue,” is a forgettable story that is technically more probable (because it includes both “may” and may not”) and thus more rational.
This tension between probability and plausibility is particularly consequential for the fate of the environment as determined by democratic societies. The scientific method tests hypotheses (the plausibility of narrative) by mathematically calculating probability. No matter the outcome, as soon as science enters the conversation, the narrative becomes less compelling. The first step in the scientific process is to call everything into question, and the ultimate fruition of science is to create a story that is duller than the one we started with (by admitting uncertainty, and narrowing the scope of the narrative). Certain political forces exploit the discord between the cause-seeking, story-making human mind and the rational caveats of accurate information, so what starts with some corporate sham like climate denialism spirals into a flat rejection of rationality. People casually dismiss theories that are supported by a broad scientific consensus (whole disciplines, countless hours devoted by some of the brightest and most diligent minds on earth) in exchange for some lame story that is peppered with memorable details and irrelevant truisms that could not withstand even the slightest honest scrutiny.
I find some refuge from this trouble in the story that habitat restoration, and any method that draws an ecological system somehow closer to its historic range, is compatible with and supportive of a thriving earth. Within the context of this broader story, we can create tests and define probabilities (and maybe not quite isolate causality) but still continue with a sense of purpose. That is the compelling narrative that brings me back to the ever-changing present moment of the land. I believe this story to be capable of withstanding formal scrutiny, but I also take it to be self-evident. Some would question it, and have done so, to the conclusion that the historic range is already too far out of reach, and where that is true, we may need to find a more expansive definition of our target… like something compatible with the historic range (see what I did there?). But I have found that if we stay close to the story of habitat restoration, it will guide and support our work, and the land will respond in kind. I take this Fescue as a word of encouragement, despite that all I really know about it is that something is happening, but I don’t know what it is.
In my last post, I promised photos of exotic invasive species that would help ID them before seed is ripe (short circuiting the trap whereby we can’t manage plants until we can ID them, and we often can’t ID them without flowering parts, which may include seed and exacerbate the problem). For more on that topic, see a recent talk I gave to the a local chapter of Master Naturalists: