Near my house is a piece of land that has been long forgotten by most of Austin. It’s an oasis hidden behind a row of ugly rectangular government buildings that intimidate trespassers. People with dogs that like to run off leash whisper its location to one another. That’s how I found out about it.
The space is roughly a rectangle about 75 acres in size. People and dogs have worn a loop around the outer perimeter that passes through a field on one side and ancient stands of pecan and live oak trees on the other. Sometimes feral monk parakeets squawk in their branches. A trail bisects the loop, and if you push on towards the creek at the end of that path, you can find a clearing in the overgrown forest. Someone has built a tree house in one of the massive oaks, boards nailed into craggy branches make several levels of sturdy platforms. My stomach turned when I climbed up to the first landing, which sits ten feet above the ground, so I never attempted the higher levels. I call it the magic tree house.
But the real magic of this place isn’t a particular tree. It’s a particular time. In the spring, the open fields erupt in a preposterous riot of color and texture. Thanks to Lady Bird Johnson, the medians of Texas highways are havens for wildflowers, but I’ve never seen blossoms so vibrant or so long-lived anywhere else. The season opens to a chorus of bluebonnets with their bright white eyes gazing at the sun, and then every few days the set changes. Spikey reds turn to scalloped oranges, which become frilly yellows; frothy whites turn to velvety violets and dusty mauves. The artistry of nature ensures that wildflower colors never clash with each other. Drinking in the endless form and intricacy of life is what hooked me on the sea decades ago. Gliding through the knee-deep flowers feels nearly the same as swimming across a coral reef.
No treasure is left unplundered for long, however. Last winter, this land was slated for development and sold. A new set of tire tracks cuts across the field toward the creek. White tape ribbons mark the biggest trees that will be spared. One recent morning, a survey crew in orange vests waved hi to me and my dog. I waved back, but my heart sank.
A week or so later, next to an US Weekly announcing Will and Kate’s baby, I saw a laminated card on the shelves of the grocery store’s check out counter: Wildflowers of Central Texas: A guide to common native species. I plucked it and put it on the belt.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been hiking the loop with the card in hand, stopping to identify flowers and memorize names, to drill colors and shapes into my head. I’ve been studying the differences between the many yellow-petaled blossoms so I can tell a greenthread from a coreopsis, a zexmenia from a Texas star. I notice new blooms each week, flowers that weren’t there before, like the prickly white poppy that just poked its floppy white head above the firewheels.
There are two different ways to experience nature. One is to simply drink it in; to wallow in its beauty, diversity, change, and challenge–and to find energy there. The other is to study it; to learn why shapes and colors are the way they are; to understand how plants and bacteria, worms and rocks, and jellyfish and turtles all interact and depend on one another. The first thing necessary to do this kind of study of nature is to learn names.
In all the years I’ve been walking this piece of land, I’ve never thought about learning the names of its flowers. All I wanted was to simply be in it. But now I find myself frantic to know their identities. I want to name all of them before they are gone.
The act of naming is a very human impulse. Naming connects us to the unknown. It makes the generic personal. We tell of the first commandment to man: to name everything the Garden of Eden in order to establish dominion over all the creatures there. Naming is the first act we do as parents after we have our children. The first thing people ask us about our pets is their name. We name objects, places, even ideas, things we can’t even see. The act of naming is very much the act of claiming.
I am learning to name the wildflowers: the elegant purple bindweed; the sturdy nightshade and the tall citrus-smelling horsemint; the graceful white rain-lily that pops up after summer storms and the dayflower that peers out between two blue elephant ears; the adorable button-sized frog fruit with the brown belly and undeniably the best name of all. And next spring, after the bulldozers have razed the fields and buried the bountiful soil in concrete, I will have claimed a piece of this place.
Yesterday, my dog and I visited the land again. Lots has changed. Many new tracks criss cross the ground. Fields have been mowed down and trees have been reduced to mulch. The space feels scarred and wide open.
But that’s not what surprised me most. Swanky and informative signage is posted throughout the space, telling of the unique biological community that lives there. It feels a little like a national park in a condemned zone. One talks about the wildflower seeds that will be harvested and replanted. Another of the 200+ year old live oaks. Still another of the rich soil deposited by the creek over hundreds of years. The signs are not patronizing and not dumbed down. They are clearly written by an expert who studied this space.
The skeptic in me can say these signs are placations, a simple way to to avoid controversy. But the optimist sees something else. There’s something strange and cool about a construction company going to this effort and expense to address the concerns of the dog walkers and bird watchers, people who ignore that same company’s “No Trespassing” signs to walk the land.