June 2017


European Honeybee collecting nectar from Eastern Gamagrass flowers.


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.

Sometimes lightning will cause the cambium (vascular tissue) of a tree to burst, without any charring.

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.

May 2017

Bumper year for Festuca versuta, a vulnerable species

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.

A small elk herd lives in south Austin.

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.

Some of the Texas Fescue seed will be ripe soon.

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.

I’m excited about the Fescue.

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.

KR Bluestem has a decumbent growth form.

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:

2017 Restoration Techniques

Or if you really want to dig in, there is a book for that:

Grasses of the Hill Country: Vegetative Key

April 2017


Spending time in natural areas helps us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.  Giving our effort in accordance with the health of our environment can further relax our sense of separateness.  Being outside can come as a privilege or hardship in passing swells, and returning to the reality of our work as an integrated and continuous aspect of the whole of the land can calm these beguilements.

The old borrow pit pictured above was just treated with a seed drill containing 55+ species of native herbaceous plants.  It has been bare for decades, and several springs emerge from this slope during exceptionally wet periods.  That is a long time for a wet site to stay bare.  The seed drill breaks the soil crust while it plants the seed, but if nothing takes, some sort of organic material or soil amendment may be due.

Seeding in April, though perhaps a little behind the curve, is not without its advantages.  By this time of year, many sites that have at least some vestige of an appropriate seed bank have already started to green up, and so those bare patches in greatest need of additional seed call loudly out to us from across the property.  “Over here, dumb@#$!”

When we seed in the winter, we allow some time for cold stratification and seed coat-weathering (which may or may not matter for a given species or in this particular central Texas clime).  Perhaps most importantly, we also allow some time for cool-season (C3) species, like Bluebonnets, Cutleaf Daisy, Texas Yellowstar, Melicgrass, and Canada Wild Rye, to take full advantage of mild weather at the turn of the seasons.

A risk of seeding in the winter though, is that prior to spring green-up, we might mischaracterize which sites our seed will have the best chance of surviving in.  Seed banks can contain thousands or tens of thousands of viable seeds per square meter, so another handful of our stuff might not have much of a chance.  Seeding in the spring can help with this problem.

There are a few species that we leave out of our general seed mix, such as Switchgrass, which can establish from seed on sites radically unlike their native niche, and dominate those sites at the expense of diversity.  There are others that we include in the mix despite that we anticipate only a few of the seeds will establish, like Inland Sea Oats, which requires more shade than many (but not all) of the sites we seed.

We also include species that can establish well outside of their niche, but that do not seem to be invasive (and thus not to hamper diversity).  This is maybe the most interesting thing that happens when we seed a site with our high-diversity wild-harvested mix.  A few years ago, we learned that Melica could behave this way.  Recently I discovered a dry, rocky hilltop we seeded a couple of years ago after a summer burn that reduced canopy cover substantially.  The area was sparsely populated with bushy bluestem (a strictly riparian species, under normal circumstances).  Then I found a seasonal head-water seep on the south facing slope of the hill:

A half-acre stand of bushy bluestem growing under half-charred oaks.  This doesn’t happen often.

These kinds of occurrences are most interesting because of the questions they beg: after establishing broadly, will they persist?  Will they eventually contract to the part of the site that is most like their native niche?  Will they migrate to the nearest occurrence of their niche (in this case, down-drainage)?  Why did they establish where they did and not elsewhere?  Was it random?  Or the work of some unknown series of filters?  A little odd, but still so neat.

This time of year, late March into mid-May, is perhaps the best time of year to manage non-native invasive species.  Let me count the ways:

  • Plant metabolisms are highly active as they transition out of winter dormancy.  The movement of fluids makes plants vulnerable to treatments that work on vascular tissue, like girdling and herbicide.
  • Plant species become easier to identify as they put on new growth and even flowers.
  • If you are working on finding and treating them as new foliage and flowers develop, you can get to them before they produce ripe seed, which will be helpful in  follow-up treatments.
Tune-in for next month’s post, which will include some photos that will help identify non-native invasive plant species before ripe seed develops.  In the meantime, enjoy this photo of Antelope Horn Milkweed with Juniper Hairstreak Butterfly and a black bug of unknown taxon.

March 2017

Nolina in bloom.

On the first day of daylight savings time, judges tend to give harsher penalties.  More people crash their cars.  Uncomfortable pauses last 30% longer.

This winter had near average rain, with a bit more than usual per month but with about three-week-long drying stretches between storm events.  Many warm days and steady monthly rains since November caused some extent of early green-up on many sites.

A late February burn seemed more active than normal: recent rain and warm temps may have set a low expectation.  It seemed that Junipers could have started to take up moisture, in which case the fire might not perform well, however, live fuel moisture data from after the burn revealed that Junipers were still in their slow winter metabolic phase, and thus dry despite the rain.  Even still, they seemed to burn a little brighter than from a normal winter burn, and I suspect the flames got a taste of those essential oils that Junipers produce to evade herbivory.  They also make them more flammable.  It has been written that these oils are richest in early spring and that they should make the plant more flammable during this time of year, but local practitioners do not talk about this.  It may be that these oils are sometimes not abundant until the winter burn season is over in the humid eastern Hill Country because the grass gets too green by then and won’t carry fire.

Juniper seemed to burn easy on this one.

People are more likely to show up with their flies down.  Freudian slips cause more embarrassing revelations in front of in-laws and between students and teachers on this first day of daylight savings time, than on any other.  Condiments, especially salt and ketchup, are grossly over-applied.

It really is an excellent time for planting; wet soils abound, and I hope we are yet a few months out from with withering levels of radiation.  I have also started herbicide treatments with the lance earlier than last year because late spring heat melts the chemical and causes a mess, so I want to stay ahead of that (and seed production). So far so good.

This grass isn’t planted deep enough (perhaps someone didn’t get enough sleep?)  Rocks make good neighbors.

It took about 25 hours to screen 100 lbs of wild harvested seed representing about 55 species.  The use of a homespun shaker table, like those used in compost screening, saved about 50% time compared to hand screening efforts in prior years.

Caution: moving parts, do not operate when drowsy.  That’s a recipricating saw behind the orange bucket.

I am doing a lot of seeding too, though I expect it is later than would be ideal for cool season species.  Everything we burned in February is getting seed in March, and I hope the ash will act like fertilizer.

Intimate view of the shaker table in action

I apologize for all the “maybe” and “hope”.  Restoration science and practice are both in their infancy, and they shilly-shally around each other in such a way that you can never quite pin down.

Sometimes we get an eager feeling about our work.  We might indict any unexpected outcome as a final failure, or be tempted to trade restoration as a compass for a more convenient paradigm (“novelty“), so that the outcome is fiscally tidy, or can fit into the span of a human life.  Eagerness is no fault, our problems are urgent.  But there is no need to compromise this practice, despite that it is fraught with open questions and interlaced with chaos (recall that it was a  meteorologist that first discovered chaos…).  It took 10,000 years for agriculture to finally achieve yields that could feed the world.  The Anthropocene, when human beings first glimpse the depth of our ability to make and unmake the environment, has only just begun.  The earth is utterly teeming with human beings, and so it is also with awareness.  The problem and solution are thus one.  It is ok if things don’t go as planned, or if we need to leave some problems for the wisdom of future generations.  The land is not going anywhere, and neither are we.  Restoration is never over, it is a continuous practice.

I propose that the first day of daylight savings time be made a holiday.  Not one that we celebrate, though.  Just a lighthearted nob to our foibles on the calendar, supported by a hard biological underpinning in the form of widespread circadian disruption.

February 2017

Can we learn a doctrine of non-harming into the core organizing value-system of society? Of ourselves?

Can our learning a doctrine of non-harming organize society into a system with core values?


7 or 8 days of 80 degree weather in January 2017.  Who says nothing is new under the sun?  It would be normal to hit 80 once or twice in the first couple of months in the year.  This is not normal.

Learning involves imagination, will, and practice.  Learning is anticipating a correct response.  Ecological literacy involves taking up the land into one’s hands and eyes.

Wind direction is very important to fire planning at the wildland urban interface.  Wind direction is more variable in winter than in summer.  Summer winds prevail from the south under typical high pressure conditions in Austin.  Frontal passages may break this pattern in the summer, but the south winds will return reliably.  In winter, wind direction is much more erratic, with more frequent frontal passages in the absence of a strong high-pressure system to characterize the season.  Fire plans are thus short term.  Where the winter fire season lacks in wind forecast, live fuel moistures in Ashe Juniper are reliably (but not extremely) low.

Anyone can see that the scale of countering habitat loss is beyond attainment.  The same ungraspable number is the pairs of yet available hands and eyes.  To unlearn the conundrum of our species, we have to learn to see ourselves attending to the needs of the land.

Plenty of warm weather, erratic wind, excellent fine fuel loading, and low humidity have left open some pretty prime burn windows in central Texas this winter.  We caught a couple of them in late January, with more of the same anticipated for February.  All of the burn units this winter are on Adobe hillslopes, which are droughty sites that may suffer slow recovery.  This spring we will thoroughly enjoy more-than-usual post-fire restoration work.  Brush berms.  Mulching.  More seeding and planting than you can shake a flaming limb at.  I can’t hardly wait.


Also planned for February are some planting days at the stock tank blow-out.  No torrential rains yet, so those planted are holding up fine.

Can we prove the equation of ourselves and the earth?  Only together.  The axiom of nature composes every heart beat, with none left out.  The axiom of nature is dangerous, living and beyond living.

Culture disincentives greed, and thus makes social life possible for humans, a (the?) top level predator (to end them all?).  American culture is backwards in this respect.  Other top level predators, like lions, protect large, sparsely populated territories.  Other social animals have strict caste systems in which most work tirelessly and never reproduce, as in ants.

True social behavior is the offering of one’s self for the benefit of all.  What is the social atmosphere that most benefits the land?  Ten thousand small, sane decisions, ornately composing our habitat, like the fine weave of so many spiders working diligently through a square yard of low foliage.

Rather than to satisfy greed, the organizing principal of the economy can be to benefit the environment.  How do we pay for it?  With everything we do.  To guarantee a universal basic income is to offer up the work of the land for all.  Conserving, preserving, restoring; the economy was originally conceived to benefit all.

January 2017

Clouds are an eyelid, birds synapses, wind moods.  What are we?

December had a few inches of rain in the first week, and then a hard freeze mid-month.  The rain offered a decent chance to plant at a dam removal site on an old stock tank, though browse pressure has since been heavy.  The plant list included some highly palatable forbs despite that deer are unmanaged on the 3,400 acre site.  We have enjoyed pretty good luck in the past few years planting relatively palatable species, following the hope that the benefits of an ongoing fire regime will allow us to restore plant species that may have been browsed out with the loss of predators (wolves, pumas, indigenous people) and screw worms (parasite regionally extirpated to benefit livestock).  Fire reduces woody plant cover and grass thatch, so there is more room for herbaceous plant material within browse height, and so more food.  If there is more food available, then deer are less likely to browse palatable species out of existence.  This can only work if population density is determined at a scale beyond that of our site; if the population grows in response to greater food availability, then any benefit in plant diversity is only gained via cultural input (planting), and is then lost when the local population density catches up (1 generation).  However, deer were “managed” on the site for over a decade and spotlight surveys indicated a stable population.  Despite this, the plant community indicated decreased browse pressure (via the increase of soapberry).  Culling then offered a seasonal population decrease, and that was adequate for a sustained plant community response. In the case of fire, perhaps a seasonal increase in food availability (following fire) will also allow a sustained plant community response (restored forb species).  Some of the species planted on this site (a) are a small notch in palatability above those that are already established (b).  The latter category (b) includes Maximilian sunflower, Liatris, Goldenrod, Bitterweed, Ironweed, Plateau Goldeneye, and Golden Dalea, and the former category (a) includes Rosinweed, Echinacea, and Foxglove.  The concept guiding the planting is to develop the site as a seed source for species that either have special value for restoration function ( eg. Texas Cupgrass, high establishment rates on degraded soils), or are uncommon but may not have been historically (Rosinweed, Echinacea, and Foxglove).

Paracantha sp. on bed liner.

Heavy browse the week after planting lead me to construct some exclusion barriers from salvaged wire and scattered slash.  It has been said that deer will not jump unless they can see where they will land (obvious enough), and also that they will not stick their faces into a tangle of pointy sticks or vines, (for instinctual fear that a small cut will lead to screw worm infection and death).

The more it looks like a junk pile now, the more it will look like unspoilt primordial wilderness later.  Because deer.

Planting is always of interest, and so is fire.  The hard freezes push target sites towards higher dead fine fuel loading and lower live fine fuel loading (and live fine fuel moisture), and so bode well for burns.  Another hard freeze is already in the forecast for early January, and those huge fine fuel loads are sure looking ready to burn…  The wind was good for it between Christmas and New Years, but nobody is around to do the work at that time of year.

One more seed harvesting date is on the calendar for the Adobe hillslope community (Trinity outcrop soils), which appears to hang on to seed a little longer than the Redland clay community (Edwards soils).  I’m really hoping to find some of that amazing crop of ladies tresses…  they apparently become invisible upon senescence.

There are no discernible karst recharge features along this losing and travertine-decked reach of Slaughter Creek.

December 2016


Late November through mid-December is a good time to go seed collecting.  Though some species have already dropped, more species are just right at this time of year than at any other.  It is probably not a coincidence then that seed broadcasting projects also seem to be the most successful at this time of year than at any other.

White tridens.  Collect seed by stripping the seed head from top to bottom.  Does well in sunny low/wet areas.

A brief fall planting period came in early November with some moderate rain followed by moderate temperatures.  The following weeks were too dry and then later too cold to constitute a quality establishment window where weather conditions are good enough for long enough that we can mostly forget about needing to tend to new plantings.  This fall was without a good establishment window, so it will be good to plan for an especially active spring planting season (if it rains).  Some falls, we get good conditions all month in October and then enough of September and/or November that a new planting of herbaceous species can be trusted to largely care for itself thereafter.  Not this year though.  September and October were awful hot.  We are planting in early December due to some delayed earth moving, and those plants may go dormant right away.

Restoration work is a sort of hand-made activity.  Work done with the hands conditions the body and mind of the doer.  Perhaps our orientation shifts towards the land as the residue of this work accumulates in the storehouse of the self.  It cultivates a subtle sort of general or universal feeling of interest-in and caring-for the land.  (Mostly though, the work may lead us to  develop caloric deficits and tend to crave junk food.  Like fries.  Or ice cream.)

Liatris will provide nectar to those in need during even the driest and hottest depths of late summer.  It is fun to collect and does well from seed.  I’ll put it everywhere, because even a wet spot will act like a dry spot in a dry year, and a shady spot may one day become a sunny one.


I love the cool gray relief of December in the Hill Country.