Soul Restoration

I really do need to get out.  I just feel much better and can think more clearly when I have had my daily dosage of nature. I would go so far as to say that it restores the health of the soul. I got a good portion of this soul-saving medicine today at the Texas Arboretum and Lady Bird Johnson wildflower garden.

The park represents the Texas biomes, especially the hill country. It is an extraordinarily pleasant landscape, a kind of oak savanna. The signature combination is the grove of oak, often live-oak, among the wild flowers, as you see on several of these pictures.  Savanna is not a final landscape, i.e. it requires a couple things to keep it in place. The two most important factors are fire and grazing. Before cattle, BTW, it was bison that did the grazing. The African savanna has the many large ungulates.  The grazing was important both because of what it took and what it left behind. The grazing animals ate the grass but ate other plants differentially, creating more diversity. They also fertilized with their manure.  It was important that the herds moved. The savannas recovered in between grazing. Fire needed to be frequent enough to keep the trees from filling in entirely, but not so frequent or hot to kill all the trees.  In the absence of grazing and fires as described, the savanna will transform either into a closed woodland or a grassland w/o trees.  South American grasslands, like those around Brasilia, were  little different in their natural states, since they lacked those large grazing animals. Of course, fire is still a factor.

Both these factors are declining today in the U.S. We still have plenty of cows, but they are increasingly fed in lots or at least raised more intensively.  Fire is often excluded to the extent that people can do it.  In time, this will change the ecology. The arboretum folks are well aware of this and are figuring that into their management.  I will write a little more about fire in another post.

The dead oaks above are the victims of oak wilt. This has been a big problem for live-oaks in Texas.  It also affects red oaks to a lesser extent, white oaks not so much.  The malady is spread by insects and root grafts. It can be managed by separating oaks. This might involve digging trenches so that roots do not graft. We also need to be very careful about pruning (never prune oaks January to June) and moving wood (do not move firewood that may contain the fungus).  Even with good management, it is a devastating disease.  It won’t be as bad as chestnut blight or Dutch elm, but it is altering the ecology over large swaths of our woodlands.

I am not sure how dangerous the snakes are.  I know that there are indeed rattlesnakes in this sort of environment, but maybe the sign is more meant to encourage people to stay on the paths than the really warn about the rattlers. 

Across the Plains of Texas

It was a pleasant drive from Houston to San Antonio. I followed I-10 most of the way and could just leave it on cruise control. One thing is a little surprising. Traffic moves a little slower in Texas, at least on I-10 on when I was driving, than it does on I-95 in Virginia. You can actually cruise at something near the speed limit and not be passed too often like you were standing still. It is a more open road too. The thing I love about Virginia is the thick forests that are all along the highway. You are generally looking at trees all the way from Washington to the Carolinas. This highway in Texas has a lot more grass and open vistas. This is also beautiful, but different.

One thing you also notice in Texas are the flags. Texans love their state flag, which is prominent along most of the roads and on building tops. It is a pretty flag. Above is the headquarters of Alamo College.  I like the really big live-oak. Below is the street new Alamo College HQ. The place is gentrifying. It seemed familiar. I figured out why. The area was former light industry, which reminds me of Milwaukee were I grew up, and they have a cream colored brick, also like Milwaukee.

San Antonio just seems a pleasant city. I got to my appointment at Alamo way early, so I had a chance to walk around the neighborhood.  I spent about an hour.  It was a little hot, but worth the walk. Below is the Mexican restaurant where I had a good meal for $8.

The road from San Antonio to Austin, I-35 was not as nice.  There was traffic the whole way and along the road were strip malls and car dealers.  It seemed like a continuous semi-urban corridor. The only entertainment was a woman in front of me. She was ripping something up and throwing it out the window. Then we she passed some state buildings, she gave it the finger for a long time. I couldn’t figure out what was going on and couldn’t take my eyes off traffic long enough to see. She had Oklahoma plates. Maybe she bears some grudge against Texas. I didn’t take any pictures along the actual highway because I didn’t stop, but I took the one below from near my hotel in Austin, which gives the idea.

The hotel is nice, as Courtyards always are, but I was disappointed.  It is called Courtyard-Austin-Arboretum. I thought it would be within walking distance to some trees.  I learned that nothing is within walking distance of much of anything around here.  The “arboretum” nearby is a shopping area called that and some condos called that.  Below is where I had supper. I could walk there from the hotel, although you have to be careful crossing the road.  I thought Marie Callender just made frozen pies. Who knew it was a restaurant? Seems like mostly old people frequent the place.  I suppose that is now my demographic too.

Community Colleges in Texas

Community colleges are one of the great innovations in education. I wrote about them in an earlier post.  While in Texas I took the opportunity to visit community colleges in Houston and San Antonio. Both are working on programs in Brazil.

Houston Community College, Jackson Community College (MI), and Red Rocks Community College (CO) are cooperating in the US-Brazil Connect consortium.  They will send a group of students to Salvador, Bahia next month to tutor in English.  Brazilians are expected to come to these schools in the U.S. this fall.  Read more about it here.  I know our Brazilian friends are enthusiastic about preparing their workforce to the needs of today and this will be well received.  Meanwhile, our American community colleges can deepen their international profiles, a win/win.   I told the Director of International Initiatives at HCC, that we would visit the students in Salvador, either I will do it myself or ask our colleagues in Rio to do it.   It will be good to see what is happening and maybe we can be helpful.  I also met the woman who will actually lead the group in Brazil.

The next day, I drove to San Antonio to visit Alamo College.  I became familiar with Alamo last year when we helped a group of student from Rio Grande do Sul get visas for an exchange with Alamo. 

I am always astonished by the breadth and depth of connections that Americans and Brazilians make on their own.   We at the embassy and consulates try hard to make connections, but most of it happens w/o our help and much of it happens even w/o our awareness. The American nation truly is greater than the American government.  But we do try to facilitate these things when we discover them and I believe we do add value.   Alamo chancellor will make a trip to Brazil next month.  I told him that we could help and asked that we go along on some of the visits.  This is a win/win too.  We help each other make connections.  I also met the woman who is honchoing the connections and who has worked with Marcia in the past.   You can read more about Alamo here.

The Alamo people are interested in taking part in the MEC program for English teaching. They told me that they already run an intensive course on ESL for Mexican teachers and can do a similar one for Brazilians.

My pictures are from Houston.  I will add some from San Antonio tomorrow, but I want to get some sleep and don’t feel like editing today, yet I want to post this now. You can see from the pictures that Houston is a modern city, lots of glass and steel.  There is still some green and many nice live oaks. The top picture is the HQ of Houston Community Colleges.

Waiting at the Bat Cave

We went to an old railroad tunnel near Fredericksburg to see the bats emerge. You can see from the picture above that bat viewing is a minor local attraction. We didn’t actually see the bats emerge. They did it too much after dark. They come out around dark every night. If they come out around dark before it gets too dark, you can see them, otherwise we just take their word that they came out.

The bats in the tunnel are Mexican free tail bats. They are small bats that eat insects, mostly moths.  They are useful because they devour prodigious numbers of corn moths. 

We were told, but I didn’t actually see, that the bats take off in a spiral to get enough lift to get into the air.  The experienced bats do it well.  When there are lots of new bats, the show is evidently more chaotic, presuming you can see it.  The bats never come out on schedule and nobody is sure why they come out when they do. One theory is that they just come out when they get hungry, so it depends on how much they ate the night before.  Another theory is that there is not theory. One or more of them wanders out and others follow.

A couple people run the “bat watch”. Bat people are special and they are very enthusiastic about bats.  They showed pictures and explained the importance of bats in the environment.  As I wrote above, the most useful thing they do is eat lots of flying bugs. Bat guano makes very good fertilizer and the bat woman explained guano used to be one of Texas’ biggest exports.

Bats are threatened by a fungus disease called white nose.  It can wipe out whole bat colonies.  Nobody knows what causes it, but it is probably helped to spread by people coming around from cave to cave, so many bat caves are now closed off to casual visitors. At out bat viewing area, we were told not to go down to the opening.  I would not have done so anyway. I appreciate the importance of bats and understand that these little bats are harmless, but I still  think it would be a little creepy to be standing right among them.  Besides, they probably crap when they fly.

The top picture is the crowd waiting for the bats. Below that picture is one of my friend Dennis Neffendorf’s sheep just before sun up. Dennis owns a peach farm near Fredericksburg. If you want some great peaches, let me know and I will put you in touch. You met Dennis in earlier posts. He worked with me in Iraq.  The sheep are unrelated to the bats, but I needed a place to put the nice picture. 

President Johnson & his ranch

We also visited the LBJ ranch. Unfortunately, I deleted the pictures by mistake. My only text would be that LBJ actually cared about his ranch. He had a great herd of cattle and he took good care of the land. No matter what you think of him as a politician or a human being, he was a good steward of the land.  For me, that means a lot. 

Dennis, mentioned above, grew up near the Johnson ranch and as a kid got to do odd jobs around the ranch. He know a lot about the Johnson’s and the people around them. He said Johnson was a bigger than life type guy. He could be a bully and an A-hole, but he remembered his roots and took an interest in everyone he met.  Like all great men, he was complex and contradictory, so biographers can find what they want.  Lady-Bird Johnson was universally a lady in all the positive senses of the word and she stood by Lyndon. I took a good picture of the tombstones of Lydon and Lady-Bird. Hers is a little bigger.  On his tombstone is the presidential seal.  Hers features a Texas bluebell. Mrs. Johnson did a good job with wild flowers.

Deutschland uber Texas

You can see the physical German influence in the buildings and the people in Fredericksburg and all around the Texas hill country. I knew that lots of Germans colonized Texas, but I was surprised by how much this resembled Wisconsin in terms of heritage and appearance. My picture doesn’t really show it. I made a mistake and erased fifteen of my pictures, so I have to use what I have left.  Along this street there are mostly German names. We had breakfast in a nice German bakery. 

Germans were hard-working and frugal, which meant that they adapted fairly well almost wherever they went.   We visited one of their neat farms – the Sauer-Beckmann farm – near the LBJ ranch.  They have living history, with period costumes, appropriate livestock etc.  The original colonists, the Sauer family, made a “modified” log cabin.  I say modified because logs were relatively rare in this part of Texas centuries ago.  (It is a little misleading to look around today because there are more trees today, since the wild fires started by lightning and Indians have been controlled.) To save on wood, the logs were interspersed with stones, which were common. Making a wall entirely of stone takes longer than making this kind of hybrid.  When they had the time, they made the buildings out of limestone and so later additions were often stone.

The pictures above and below are from the Sauer-Beckmann farm, part of the LBJ park complex.  One good thing about both is that they have actual livestock. Livestock were a big part of rural life and when they do the recreations w/o them it is not realistic.  Johnson himself left some of his land to the park system with the stipulation that they maintain the place as a working ranch with cattle. 

The Germans fit uneasily into the pre-Civil War Texas because they set themselves apart to some extent and had a superior attitude at times.  More importantly, they were strongly and loudly against slavery.  When Texas voted to succeed from the Union in 1861, the counties with heavy German populations voted to remain in the Union.  Texas Confederates declared the hill country in rebellion – against the confederates.  There were open battles between pro-union and Confederate forces.  Scores of Germans were killed in the fighting, others were shot and hung.  Lynching of Germans was practiced. These episodes of Civil War history are not well known.   Germans being lynched, beaten and murdered because of their stand against slavery doesn’t seem to fit in well with subsequent narratives.

I have written before about Germans in the U.S. and recently about the Amana Colonies. We now have forgetting the contributions of America’s largest ethnic group because Germans and their contributions have become as American as hamburgers, hot dogs and good beer.

Ragnarok of the Big Trees

The Texas hill country is extraordinarily pleasant and we got a very green period because of lots of rain in the last couple of weeks. But my joy at encountering this beautiful landscape was tempered by oak wilt that has been killing the wonderful live oaks that give the hills their dominant feel. Oak wilt was identified in Wisconsin in the 1940s and has gradually been spreading.  It is s fungal disease spread both by a beetle and through natural root grafts among the oak trees.  So if one oak tree get the disease, it usually spreads to the neighbors.  I knew about oak wilt before, but seeing it in action here made me profoundly sad.  It seems to have had a bigger effect here in the Texas hill country than elsewhere, maybe because the live oaks form pure stands giving the beetles and the root grafts an easy way to go. 

You manage oak wilt, but it can be trouble. You have to be sure that the oaks have not sustained injuries that can attract the beetles or give the fungus spores an opening. The danger time for this is in the spring, until about July when summer heat kills exposed spores. This means that spring pruning of oaks is out.  You also have to be careful not to smack into the oaks with lawnmowers or other equipment.  If you have an infected oak, you have to get rid of it quick AND made sure the roots are not passing the fungus.  This means trenching between the infected oak and any others nearby.

When planting trees, it is a good idea not to create pure stands.  If oak trees are separated by other sorts of trees, the beetles and spores will spread more slowly or not at all.

The USDA page on oak wilt is here.

As long as I am feeling bad about the ragnarok of beloved big trees, I am also very upset by the emerald ash borer.  This rotten little bug is a native of Asia, first identified in Michigan in 2002.  Since then it has killed millions of ash trees and spread as south as Virginia, east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to the Great Plains.  The insect gets under the bark and quickly kills ash trees.

Emerald ash borers are not very mobile and left on their own they would probably remain a local problem.  Unfortunately, they hitch rides with us when we drive and especially when we transport infected firewood.   Never move fresh firewood any farther than you can walk.

The other one that bothers me is the hemlock wooly agelgid. This is another Asian import that was first reported in America in 1924.  This bug threatens the continued existence of hemlocks in the U.S. outside protected gardens.  Treatments are available but many of our nicest hemlock forests are gone already.  Hemlocks occupied a particular ecological niche in that they can grow in very deep shade. They used to fill an important role as understory trees and in shading little streams and keeping water temperatures lower.  Their ghost forests cannot do this.

On the plus side, we have developed American elms that are resistant to blight. We have better science available all the time. Maybe we can stay ahead of the bugs, but it will be a lot of work.

The top picture is a Texas hill country landscape.  You can see the dead trees in the foreground. Below that is what a healthy Texas live oak looks like. 

PS – I am informed that my reference to Ragnarok is too obscure and that some people might confuse it with some kind of video game. Ragnarok is from Norse mythology. It is the final struggle where the gods, such as Odin and Thor, are doomed. In German it is (also obscure) Gotterdamerung. A Wagner opera has that title and goes into the subject. The English “Twilight of the Gods” doesn’t really cover it, IMO. I understood when I wrote that it was hyperbole, but it seems that hyperbole is not really out of place if you risk losing species of trees that have dominated our landscapes since the end of the last ice age. 

San Antonio & the River Walk

The thing I liked most about San Antonio’s Riverwalk was that it seemed very natural because of the very large trees, mostly bald cypress and Montezuma cypress, and the lush plants along the route. Chrissy & I walked along the paths and then took the boat ride. The boat ride is worth it. The city is named after the San Antonio River, not the other way around.

Part of the river is natural, i.e. it has a mud bottom and part is created with a concrete channel. The river was a center of city life since the founding of the city, but the River Walk has been developing in something recognizable as predecessor of today’s version since the 1940s. In order to make that possible, the river needed to be controlled. San Antonio can get heavy rains and the river used to flood. Today the big investments along the river walk are protected by a flood gate system, which shunts flood waters into holding basins and an underground channel.

The climate and vegetation surprised me. It is more southern and Gulf shore-like than I thought. I always pictured the place as a more Western place, in the sense of drier or more of a prairie ecosystem. But there were palm trees, live oak, tropical looking rubber trees and the cypress I mentioned above all growing in enthusiastic profusion.  

I suppose that most people are less passionate about environment & trees and more about the many nice restaurants. It is very much alive with people, probably mostly tourists. We had lunch at a place called “Dick’s” where the waiters are encouraged to be wiseasses. That gives the place a special character. The food is just okay. In the evening we had some good steaks at the Texas Land & Steak restaurant.

Another surprising aspect of San Antonio is its Middle American feel. I expected the city to be a lot more Hispanic than it is. Maybe I was just in a particular part of town, but besides the sub-tropical plants and the Alamo, this place could have been in Ohio or Illinois.  In fact, what I have been noticing generally in my drive across America has been how American the country is. We talk a lot about our differences, but they pale before the things we have in common.

People have local pride, of course, and Texas has more local pride than any other place I went.  From my hotel window I saw Texas flags on top of many buildings. There are lots of other signs of Texas pride.  Even the waffle at our hotel was shaped like the State of Texas.

The top picture is the San Antonio River Walk. They put food coloring in to give it that green color. The next shows one of the many foot bridges over the river. The trees that are shaped like elm trees are actually Montezuma cypresses. There is an individual picture of one along side. Between that is a live oak. And at the bottom are the Texas waffle and flags.  Below is the Buckhorn Saloon, full of stuffed animals of the kind PETA doesn’t approve. There are even more in the rooms above.

Amarillo, TX

The most interesting thing in town is the Big Texan, where I had the best steak I ever tasted. It is a kitschy place, but nice. You can get a 72 oz steak. If you eat the whole thing within an hour, it is free. The waitress says that about ten people a day try to eat the big steak and about three actually finish. They got a big table in front where the big eaters do their thing. Nobody was trying when we were there. It seems to me that it is embarrassing to lose and maybe even more embarrassing to win.

The town itself is mostly strip malls and hotels. It is not that bad a place, but not that good either. The thing I noticed in the paper is how cheap houses are. You can get what looks like a decent house for less than $100,000.

We visited the Plains Museum in Canyon, Texas nearby. The museum was nice and inexpensive. It is housed at West Texas A&M. Texas Universities are good and in state tuition is cheap. This school seems particularly good for geology, paleontology and agriculture. The most interesting part was the history of oil exploration. Texans worked hard to develop technologies to find, get oil and to get it to market. It is a ground up history, where many entrepreneurs innovated their way to success – very heroic. Oil is an interesting topic. Compare how the people of Texas created a resource to how the princes, potentates and nabobs of Arabia had an unearned resource handed to them by foreign companies. Oil corrupts third world counties because they don’t do anything to develop the resource. It comes free along with resentment of the firms that gave them this undeserved bounty.

There were also exhibits on Texas in the past, starting with the Pre-Cambrian. My personal favorite is the Pleistocene, but there is not that much you can say about a couple of bison skulls so let me skip to the last couple hundred years ago. Life was a challenge for people in the Texas panhandle. The land is semi desert. Adapting crops to the environment only goes do far. Farmers water their land with water drawn from the Ogallala aquifer, a giant underground lake. The aquifer was created 100,000 years ago by water runoff from the far away Rockies. It is no longer being recharged because the Pecos River now cuts through and drains off the water into the Gulf of Mexico. The water will last awhile longer, but needs to be conserved. Maybe we could plug up the Pecos in set the whole recharging thing in motion again.

I listened to AM radio on the way into town. Most people around here are conservative, if you survey what they listen to. But contrary to what we might think of people so far inland in the U.S., they are interested in foreign affairs. They have to be, since their agricultural commodities are sold on world markets. The local radio included interviews about markets overseas and a report of a trade delegation from Russia visiting the panhandle. They also had a call in program about how biotechnology is being received in Europe.