Birdspot. On the road. Drawing birds.


They are beautiful, those Texas trees, that Texas light. Eastern Texas – not Gulf Coastal Eastern Texas, not Piney Woods Eastern Texas, not Hill Country Texas, but the middle of cow country near Austin near Houston near Dallas but a good distance from all of them Texas – has an identity somewhere between highly local and United States Universal. There are woods amidst all that farmland, running along streams, edging the boundary between the creeping suburbs of a college town and the ranches.

Driving up from the Rio Grande Valley, the plant and tree growth feels as if a gentle transition has been drawn diagonally across regions, between the Northeastern U.S. and the Southwestern. If one goes past the changes in flora (and breaks through the membrane of a certain culture, of human glossing over and homogenization), you reach geology: old rock, older rock, and oldest rock, an astonishing set of bands that tell stories of seas rising and receding, uplifts and erosion of ancient mountains, and volcanism. A lovely map by the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology can be seen if you click [here]. Everything that grows and lives on the surface (some more lightly than others), comes down to those intricate strata and the epics they tell.

The vistas across the East (?) Texas fields were open and Western, but the trees were towering and resplendent as I walked into the woods, leaving my father’s house after another day’s worth of hunching over drawings. I took that walk multiple times over a few weeks, each time hoping for a few more sparrows than the afternoon before. The winter sparrows were not truly in yet, save for a few smug early arrivals (mostly White-throated Sparrows); these seemed to settle in for the night awfully early and long before the sun had set. I surmised that they might have been resurfacing again just after dusk, since they followed that pattern in my father’s yard, but perhaps the yard was different because of the feeders. In any case, their behavior was different than in the New York and New England winter.

Each time I entered the woods, leaving the mental expanses of endless Texas parking lots and cow pastures both, crunching oak leaves underfoot (California style, with the dry leaves and a dusty forest floor), I was also carried through the humid Southern climes and up through the Eastern Seaboard to New England. This sensation was particularly strong when turning back, as the sun set: deciduous branches and twigs entwined against hazy oranges and purples, with the sun making fractals through November tree-bones; it bored into me things past and left behind. New England things. A soft breeze came through, though, too warm for a Northeastern fall and vaguely reminiscent of my teen years in Southern California. I felt as if I could, after years of regarding this town with an attitude slightly nicer than veiled contempt, finally understand this place. It became a patch, a more grounded home.

There was a large pecan tree in the middle of my favorite field, at the last bend in a little deer path. The warm breeze, the things past, the light on that tree made me see how it would be possible to grow up here, in Brazos County, with a deep love for this place and county and country. I imagined a whole different childhood, possibilities. Perhaps the usual – games with other kids in your neighborhood, a first kiss, or a breakup, under that tree – or maybe more along the lines of what I was conjuring: an elusive, non-verbal happiness with who you are and where you come from. These were not my histories, as I stood there, alone with the pecan tree and the breeze, tiptoeing on the skin of the temporary.

Image: 4 sketches of a Barred Owl, ink on paper.

7 Responses to “Bedrock, and a Barred Owl”

  1. What a lovely sketch. I do not think I’ve seen a barred owl in the wild yet. All my owls are great horned or barn.

    The Brazos Valley geographically looks very east/southeast Texas. My rough understanding, though, is that most Texans would term this part of “central Texas”, which proceeds down a diagonal from just northwest of Waco to just a tiny bit southeast of where you were. It is bordered by the Hill Country due south and due west of its western extremes, by the piney woods of east Texas to the northeast of Brazos County, by the Big Thicket not far at all from College Station/Bryan, and by the north Texas of prairies and lakes to the north of that area.

    Sometimes people in Texas speak of central Texas disparagingly, for its undulating pasture land and empty spaces. This is not the stark semi-arid west Texas, but instead an agricultural region punctuated by riparian woodlands and creeks. You can always find good BBQ here, and in season amazing fresh vegetables, but few Mobil stars, much less Michelin. But I love spending time in nature in the northern reaches of area, where birds abound on the fields and the parks offer lots of wide spaces to enjoy them. You can see a bobcat here, in the Summer giant swallowtail butterflies the size of a blue plate special, and the people are direct and polite.

    One Summer when I was college-age, I did the “Summer school in London” thing.
    One of the women also in the program attended Texas A & M. She was a practical, bright, bottle-blonde and rather attractive woman–a football cheerleader, if I recall. She seemed at home in London–and, I suspect, everywhere. She expected to get her accounting degree, work in accounting, and settle in Texas, where she was planted. I wonder what became of her? As she was a year older than I am, she may be someone’s grandmother by now. I did not know her well, but I thought of her when I read your passage about that elusive, non-verbal happiness of place.

    Last year I stopped in central Texas near Lake Waco, hiking on a Sunday on my way to a business matter in Austin. Fields of birds were everywhere–great crested flycatchers, scissortail flycatchers, and a host of usual suspects.
    I wonder how many people zip by on I-35, not aware of all that beauty. Part of me wishes they know of those little creeks and meadowlarks and dickcissel and hawks on fence posts–but part of me is, perhaps ignobly, secretly glad they drive on by.

    The road is straight and narrow, and all wisdom is crowded by desire, and truth is a pathless land, and all that. But when I see a great crested flycatcher on a small tree in a central Texas field, I glimpse something I have the faith but lack the words to express.

  2. Wonderfully and spot on! I’ve seen a good share of these beautiful Owls and you nailed it!

  3. Beautifully observed and drawn as always Katherine, that postcard looks great too, wish I could see that exhibish! I do hope a book comes out of this roadtrip, put me down if it does!

  4. Brazos County is, indeed, in Central Texas. Living in College Station grows on one, until the realization comes that this is a pretty good place to live, a compromise between urban and rural. Although there is “less”, in many ways, than there is in Pasadena, CA, and similarly “more” than in my growing-up home in western Pennsylvania, those things may be found an hour or two drive away. People are friendly. And oh yes, the birding is interesting!

    Thanks for your interesting and thought-provoking essay. I’m happy that your opinion of Texas is changing, that it is growing on you, too. Thanks also for the wonderful Barred Owls!

  5. Beautifully written, I really enjoyed reading it from my projo cubicle. Sounds like you’re on a wonderful adventure….

  6. Superb. You definitely have it as a bird artist. Big thumbs up.

  7. “…tiptoeing on the skin of the temporary.” Perfect.

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