It’s time for another walk in the woods with our friend Bill Holston. Lace ’em up and jump. In today’s installment, we learn that Dallas used to look much different than it does today.
Grass Roots Movement
By Bill Holston
I was thrilled to learn that the final field trip for this year’s North Texas Master Naturalist Program, was going to fall on my 55th birthday. I couldn’t think of anything that I’d rather do more than walk in a prairie on a hot Spring Day. If that doesn’t establish my nature lover nerd credentials, then I suppose nothing will. Okay, I also did enjoy a nice Summitt Pale Ale at the Meridian Room, with my closest friends later that day.
The field trip was to the Clymer Meadow, a place I’ve wanted to visit for years. The Prairie is located a few miles from Celeste, Texas, off of FM 1582, and about an hour and half drive from Dallas in Hunt County. The 1,068-acre Clymer Meadow Preserve is one of the largest remnants of the Texas Blackland Prairie. It is owned by the Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s oldest and best conservation groups. Founded in 1951, it has been identifying unique areas that are in need of preservation. At one time, Blackland Prairie covered 12 million acres of Texas, spreading from the Red River to around San Antonio. Now there is perhaps 3,000 to 5,000 acres remaining, most of it contained in small parcels. Our guide was the Prairie Manager, Jim Eidson, who was extremely knowledgeable and helpful in our walk through the Prairie.
I left early so I’d have time to explore on the drive up. After leaving US 380 out of McKinney, I took all side roads to the Preserve. It wasn’t long before I was driving down narrow country roads. It felt like I was turning back the clock to another era, which turned out to be the right feeling for the entire experience. I put Doug Burr’s CD The Shawl in the player and listened to the words of the Psalms as I drove along winding country lanes. Just outside of Celeste, I stopped to read a roadside historic marker, which informed that this area is a unique spot because it is on the headwaters of the Sabine River. In 1836, the Sabine was the boundary between the United States and the Republic of Texas. This branch of the Sabine was named Cow Leach Branch, named after a local Indian Chief. I was early for the hike, so I drove down FM 1562 past the turn off to the Prairie. I noticed a sign to the Lane Cemetery. I drove up an old country cemetery, with great views over the grassy hillsides. I got out of my car and immediately heard a Mockingbird singing in the top of a Red Cedar Tree. I walked through the old cemetery, looking at the old weathered granite markers. I walked over to one of the larger ones and discovered James C. Clymer was buried there, with his wife and 4-month-old son, Earl. The inscription read:
“Sleep on father, thy work is done,
Jesus has come and borne thee home.”
I picked some wild roses growing along the fence line, and laid them on the stone as a silent thank-you for the Prairie I was about to discover. I made my way back over the the County Road, where about 15 of us parked our cars, before walking to the small house, housing the Nature Conservancy local headquarters. It was hot, so we all tried to catch a breeze while we waited for Jim Eidson to start our hike. He gave us a great intro to the Blackland Prairie as well as some background about Mr. Clymer. Mr. Clymer settled this area in the 1850’s after earning his fortune selling equipment during the California Gold Rush. He was a Union sympathizer and was chased out of the county during the Civil War. He returned and started buying land. One of the things that saved this prairie is that Mr. Clymer did not plow it all under for cotton farming. He saved quite a bit of land and cut the native vegetation as feed for cattle and livestock. Thus this prairie survived the plow.
Jim explained the prairie we were about to walk across was Old Growth Prairie. I was accustomed to thinking about old growth Forest, but never thought of prairie like that. Perhaps because there is so little left. Jim explained that during the Pleistocene era that this land had been forested, but that about 8,000 years ago there was a huge drought that created these grasslands. This Prairie we were about to explore was over 5,000 years old. Hey, that puts turning 55 into perspective. We learned that there were two things that are essential to the health of this Prairie: Fire and Bison. Fire burned off the grasses, which came back richer the following year. In addition the fires kept the woody invasives (what some people call trees) out. The Bison added to the health of the prairie by the way they walk, which was apparently on their toes. It makes me wonder if bison ever wore toe shoes.
Have you ever wondered what North Texas looked like when the first settlers arrived? Dallas was located in the middle of this Blackland Prairie. Early settlers describe grass which grew up to the belly of horses. There were bison herds here. Trees were restricted to bottomlands and along creeks. The hillsides were all covered with grasses and wildflowers. Imagine what all this once looked like. Once we started putting out the fires, the Prairies evolved to what open spaces look like now, dotted with Ashe Juniper. We learned that the Prairie is perhaps the most endangered ecosystem on the planet. By going to these remnant prairies, we get a glimpse back in time, to what all of this looked like over 5,000 years ago. We also get an idea by seeing some of the remnant prairies closer by:
Â· Tridens Prairie, Lamar County – 41 ha
Â· Leonhardt Prairie, Falls County – 16 ha
Â· County Line Prairie, Hunt County – 8 ha
Â· Mathews Prairie, Hunt County – 41 ha
Â· Parkhill Prairie, Collin County – 21 ha
Â· Kachina Prairie, Ellis County – 16 ha
Â· Rosehill Prairie, Dallas County – 30 ha
Â· Flagpole Hill Prairie, Dallas County — ha
Â· Cedar Hill State Park, Dallas County – 8 ha
One of the things that makes this prairie unique is phenomenon called Gilgai. We learned that the soils comprising this particular prairie are Vertisols, which are very high in clay content. That soil expands and contracts in a way that creates craters in the landscape. These Gilgai hold water after rains and therefore support a wide range of biological diversity. There were no trails and we just walked thorough the tall grasses, some of which were about knee high. As we stood in the Gilgai, we could see that there were lots of different plants there. The rarest was the Wide Leaf False Aloe ( Manfreda virginica subsp. Lata) I was astonished at the huge diversity of life that filled these fields. We saw purple Indian Paintbrush, Red Seed Plantain (Plantago rhodosperma) Prairie Flox (Phlox pilosa), Maximillian Sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii), and Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium). The Prairie was filled with grasses of course: Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi, Little Bluestem (Andropogon scoparius )and Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum). I could imagine why people referred to prairies as seas of grass, as I watched the tall grasses bend to the wind as it made its way across the tops of the tall grass. It was beautiful. As Jim Eidson once said in an interview:
“It’s, you know, look–look at ground here, if you’re whizzing by this thing at 55 or 70 miles an hour it’s–it’s not the most photogenic landscape in north America. It doesn’t–you don’t immediately recognize its importance and how special it is until you learn something about it. You get your nose into it, you know, actually are able to understand how many different species of vascular plant are here and how many thousands of species of invertebrates live here. But nonetheless, you know, it is–it is the most endangered large ecosystem in North America.”
We learned, for instance, that there are 250 to 300 species of vascular plant here on this prairie. I’m glad I got the time to just walk across this expanse of grass.
As we walked, I could hear the lovely song of Spiza Americana, the Dickcissel. These prairie birds migrate from South America. We heard these birds more than we saw them, as they were down in the grasses where there nest were. We surprised a Dickcissel, which flew away at our feet. Jim knelt and pulled the grass back to show the beautiful small pale blue eggs of the next generation of these prairie dwellers. Laura Ingalls Wilder once called these birds Dicky Birds. The birds thrived in the Prairies she once wrote about.
In order to maintain this Prairie, the Conservancy continues to use the same methods as the era of the Native Americans: fire and grazing. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the lush grassland we were walking across had recently had a controlled burn. The grasses and flowers now filled these fields. In the past the Conservancy ran bison on the prairie, but having lost their access to Bison, they run a few cattle, which approximate the action of bison hooves punctuating and eating the grasses. This way they continue the health of the Prairie and prevent it becoming a climax wood of cedar elm and bois d’arc trees.
After finishing our prairie walk, we visited the barns where they are building an inventory of seeds from the native grasses and forbs. They’ve planted fields of grasses for the purpose of cultivating and collecting seeds. One of the disadvantages of using cultivated seed is that it comes from a narrow genetic pool. By collecting seeds from this unique and diverse environment, they ensure a wide genetic diversity in the plants. The Preserve received a grant from the USFS, which they are using to produce seed for them.
We spent several hours walking slowly over these fields. Edward Abbey once wrote in Desert Solitude that the only way to really appreciate the beauty of Arches National Park, was to get out of the car and walk, or better yet to crawl. We took his advice this Saturday. I kept thinking about what it must have been like for those early settlers, with millions of acres of grass stretching as far as the eye could see. It must have seemed to them this was a limitless resource. Sadly, it wasn’t. Thanks to people at the Nature Conservancy, there is a remnant of Prairie. I returned to the car and started the drive back, really refreshed by my time in the prairie, thankful for the foresight of a man from Pennsylvania that kept this special place from being destroyed by the plow. I was left with the idea that this Prairie was a much greater legacy to his memory than the granite marker in that Lane Cemetery.
Access is by appointment only. For more information, contact Larry Crane at the Clymer Meadow Preserve, P.O. Box 26, Celeste, TX 75423, Phone/Fax: (903) 568-4139.