Category Archives: Texas Hill Country

A Farewell To…A Heron

I’ve written several blog pieces lately on a Great Blue Heron that has daily visited our stock tank. The heron and I have developed a predictable morning routine.  Initially I find it perched atop a tree on the opposite bank. Then I throw fish food into the pond. I backtrack to my pickup from where I watch the heron glide gracefully across the stock tank (what a sight with its immense six foot wing span), land, and creep to its protected spot alongside the water. There it stealthily awaits a fish meal to swim by. When this occurs and with lightning like reflexes, it dives into the water to retrieve a fish. Our routine has become part of my morning ritual and, frankly, I’ve come to enjoy and expect it.

This is not really my heron but a look alike. Mine is too camera shy to allow me to snap a good image of it.

This is not really my heron but a look alike. Mine is too camera shy to allow me to snap a good image of it.

Imagine my disappointment the past two weeks when the heron has failed to show up. Initially I shrugged it off as happenstance, as the heron had at times missed a single day. Now it seems all too clear that the heron has left our ranch for another lofty perch.

Spring has sprung in the Texas Hill Country. The Red Bud trees have blossomed and the Bluebonnets are up. The Live Oak trees are  changing over their leaves. Perhaps with the changing of the season, the heron has taken on new territory to fish. Alternatively, my heron may have fallen for a mate and been lured away by surging hormones- Spring is known to do that after all. I can only hope my heron has not befallen some worse fate, a consideration I’m loathe to even consider.

I’ll keep my eyes peeled each morning for the Great Blue Heron but fear it has departed the area or at least left my stock tank. If so,it leaves behind both good memories and hopefully good luck. To be sure, I shall miss its gorgeous flight, its prowess at fishing, its gorgeous appearance, its curious waddling gait, and the way it folds itself into a small package just at the edge of the water.

Come to think of it, The Great Blue Heron may just have tired of my bluegill! Why not for a change dine on Guadalupe bass or fat head minnows?

Farewell Great Blue Heron. You will be missed.

Heron Folklore

Great Blue Heron in flight

Great Blue Heron in flight

I recall the shiver of excitement coming over me like a blanket of wonderment the first time a Great Blue Heron flew just over me and landed nearby. Given its majesty, not too surprisingly a mythology has grown up around these impressive birds. Several weeks ago I posted “Chumming for Heron,” a piece describing daily visits to our ranch by a Great Blue Heron. Unwittingly I was aiding the heron by luring fish near to the bank and improving its prospects for fishing. This experience with the heron got me to wondering what myths might exist about these striking birds that are such incredibly good fish hunters, so I did a little research.
The Greeks believed the heron was a messenger from the gods. The heron was thought to have been sent by Athena and Aphrodite, the goddesses of wisdom and love. Athena, for example, once sent a heron to Odysseus during his odyssey as a sign that she was watching him. Celtic mythology had herons as messengers of the gods as well and thought the herons were imbued with superior intelligence.

Our ranch is named Medicine Spirit Ranch in honor of the original Native American inhabitants and their belief  the land was “strong medicine.” One myth from Native Americans is about the heron and the hummingbird who raced for possession of all the fish in the rivers and lakes. The birds had a long race with the heron flying slowly but never stopping while the hummingbird zipped ahead but slept each night. Because of this, the hummingbird lost the race and now has to eat nectar while the heron dines on fish.

Wolves and herons are the subject of another Native American myth. The story goes that a Blue Heron helped two weasels cross a river because they had asked it nicely. Along comes a rude wolf, demanding to be taken like the weasels across the river. The heron proceeded to fly the wolf halfway across the river and then dumped the wolf into the river to drown.

The symbolism of the heron varies by culture. It represents strength, purity and long life in China. In Native American tradition the heron symbolizes wisdom and good judgment. In ancient Egypt the heron was a symbol  of creation while in Africa and Greece the heron was a messenger of the gods.

Watching a heron fish also instructs us in patience. This is particularly a good lesson for our busy, rushed lifestyles these days. They watch and wait for long periods of time, remaining alert to the presence of fish. Ultimately the heron strikes with lightning like speed and precision.

Herons are also believed to be symbols of good luck, particularly when they land on your home or even shed a feather on your property. Not a bad way at all to start out a new year!greatblueheronusfwfrankmiles

A Very Mooo-ry Christmas

From all the critters, stock, and folks at Medicine Spirit Ranch, we wish you wonderful holidays.

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Fall Rains Promise Spring Wildflowers

Beauty is everywhere, if we are not too distracted to look for it.

Recent rains increased the flow in Sugar Creek over “Hidden Falls” at our ranch with water cascading  over a rocky ledge into a foamy pool below. This welcome rain also promises a wonderful crop of spring wildflowers for the Texas Hill Country. Mother Nature is benevolent to us, all we have to do is stop and enjoy her gifts. These gifts may take the form of majestic cloud formations, striking sunrises and sunsets, beautiful autumnal colors, and inspiring landscapes.

A waterfall at Hidden Falls Ranch, November 2016

A waterfall at Hidden Falls Ranch, November 2016

Hopefully we will each take a few moments to allow the healing power of nature to soak into us  much like the warming rays of the sun, heightening out spirits and applying balm to our hurts.

Tree Story

As I trundle around my ranch, my gaze is often drawn to unusually shaped trees. For example, the tree below while fully developed, is missing its middle portion. It looks strange. The main branch likely broke off many years ago in a wind storm or lightning strike but has compensated by growing from its outer branches. Such adversity, such perseverance from this Live Oak tree. This tree has managed to overcome and become an attractive, if unusually appearing, tree once again.

The strong Texas winds during storms have blown down a number of other trees around the ranch. Most died soon after being toppled but surprisingly some have survived. The  trees downed by wind had shallow roots with the root ball surfacing completely or partially. Several trees with some remaining root structure have survived. They eventually redirected some of their limbs skyward and, if not exactly thriving, at least continue to live.These trees are all Live Oaks, the name coming from always having leaves. As compared to the usual deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the winter, the Live Oak always appears to be alive and pushes off its old leaves in the Spring to make room for new ones. The strong life force of the Live Oak conjures up for me the verb “to live” as much as it does the adjective “live.”

Oddly shaped tree that likely lost its main trunk to wind or lightning many years ago

Oddly shaped tree that likely lost its main trunk to wind or lightning many years ago

A blown down tree that has survived.

A toppled tree that has survived.

This felled tree not only has its trunk bent toward the sky but also has vertical shoots springing from near its base.

This felled tree not only has its trunk bent toward the sky but also has vertical shoots springing from near its base.

Looking at these challenged trees causes me to lean in and listen closely for their stories. It seems to me their botanical grit has frustrated the destructive forces of nature and offers a a metaphor for our human condition.

All of us are faced by life’s challenges. Fortunately most of our challenges are not serious but some are. A few of us have endured great challenges including death of a loved one, divorce, or loss of a job. Like the tree story, some people, despite such huge losses following their necessary grieving response, are able to re-establish their emotional grounding and get on with their lives. Others faced with similar or even lesser stresses sometimes just don’t bounce back as well. In my professional life as a neurologist, I was always surprised by how different people responded to bad news about their health. These responses varied widely. (if interested many examples are shared in my recently published book, Carrying The Black Bag: A Neurologist’s Bedside Tales) Which factors lead to these differences?

To continue the metaphor further, while external forces such as windstorms and lightning damage trees, an even greater menace to our oak studded ranch results from a tree disease known as Oak Wilt. This fungal disease spreads via a beetle through wounds to the tree or via its root system. It chokes off the channels that take up vital, life sustaining nutrition and hydration. In very short order, an affected tree loses its leaves and dies. A Red Oak tree will die within a day or two. Live Oaks take longer to die and  despite being very ill, some will survive.

A tree killed by Oak wilt

A tree killed by Oak wilt

The kill rate for oaks is 80-90%, yet some Live Oaks will maintain leaves on a limb or two and fight valiantly to survive.

A tree severely affected by Oak wild but one that will likely survive in altered shape

An Oak tree severely affected by Oak wilt but will likely survive with a drastically altered shape

Without hopefully torturing the metaphor too greatly, It seems to me several points can be made. First, this serious tree fungal disease can be overcome by a few determined Live Oak trees. While damaged, the surviving trees, given enough time, will live and may even eventually become handsome trees once again. This is, i believe, an example of the strong life force of the Live Oak trees along with some good luck.

A second point relates to the higher death rate of those trees affected by the internal disease, Oak Wilt, as compared to the trees that sustain major damage by external forces. The internal forces of Oak wilt are more often fatal to the tree than are the external forces.

Might this also be true for people? We often face external adversity with greater determination especially if our own spirits are not sapped. Self-doubt, discouragement, depression, and hopelessness diminish the quality of our survival more so than do grievous external forces such as job loss, financial reversals, loss of a limb, or geographic relocations.

Oak trees are not humans. I get that. Yet, the apparent desire of Live Oak trees to persevere despite injury or illness provides a ready comparison for the human condition. Given that all of us will likely face a serious loss or illness, perhaps it is worth pausing to contemplate how we might nurture our fortitude and prepare ourselves for the inevitable.

Perhaps the tree story will help to nourish the hope that maintains our human existence during turbulent times.

“Mama Duck-Me” Guest Blog by Trudy Hutton

How did I become Mama Duck? Earlier this summer we and our neighbors decided to raise some Rouen ducks for our pond (known in Texas as a “stock tank” or just “tank”.) We have raised ducks before—five or six years ago– but they have all disappeared through old age or predators and we decided we would enjoy them again.

The ducks are ordered from a breeder and come via mail at one day old. The post office calls first thing in the morning…and I mean first thing, usually about 6:00 a.m….that there is a cheeping box of birds to be picked up AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

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Our ducks, six cheeping handsful of down, lived for the first week in the laundry room in a large cardboard box. They had a heat lamp to keep them warm and we lined the box with newspaper to keep them semi-clean They are messy, smelly little things; the box needed to be cleaned daily, lined with fresh newspaper and food and water dishes refilled. Ducks like water. They really saw their water dish as a small swimming pool. Every morning about 4:30 they would begin cheeping for fresh water and food. Tom was the one who heard these early morning protestations and got up to fulfill their requests. Enough of that. The second week we moved them out to the shop and into an old poultry cage we had before used for our birds. Out of earshot and smell range (not to mention they were quickly outgrowing the box) we slept a little better.

We built a nice round chicken wire pen inside the fenced garden and filled a small wading pool for their swimming enjoyment.

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DSC_0167Although they were growing fast, we had to build “duck ramps” for them to be able to get into the water and we placed a rock “island” in the middle of the pool for them to rest on.

Every morning we gathered the ducks into a cardboard box and transported them to the outdoor pen. In the evening we rounded up the ducklings, after chasing them around the outdoor pen and putting them in the box to transport back to the poultry cage. (Making the outdoor pen round was not a good idea – no corners to catch them in.) They are very fast little devils! I would “quack, quack” to reassure them that it was Mama Duck, and hopefully convince them to follow me.

After the second week the ducks had outgrown the small wading pool, so we added a larger one and took down the chicken wire pen. They now have full roaming rights to the entire garden area.

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By the end of that week, they had the morning and evening routine down. We no longer have to transport them in a box between the garden and their night-time pen. Open the door to the shop and the cage door in the morning and I could lead the ducks out to the garden, quacking as we went. Tom says I flapped my wings, too, but I deny it.

 

After a few days I didn’t even have to do much as far as leading or herding. Now when we open the door to the poultry pen, out they march, in a close group, on their own.

About sundown we reverse the routine, usually following behind the ducks, as they seem to know it’s time for bed. They head straight into the shop and the evening safety of the poultry pen. A few nights ago, I was a bit late going out to bed them down and found they had already taken themselves inside for the night!

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As the ducks grow we may have to find a bigger swimming pool. But before too much longer they will be big enough to move down to the tank and be on their own. Rouen ducks are identical in coloring to Mallards, but unlike Mallards they cannot fly more than 20 or 30 yards. By the time they grow enough to move to the tank, they will be able to swim into the middle of the water for safety from predators.

I still “quack, quack” when I feed them daily in hopes that when they do make the move to the tank, it will only take a few “quacks” to call them up to feed. We’ll see how the transition to the tank goes. The last time we had ducks ready to move to the tank, I walked down to the tank, quacking as I went, with 6 mostly grown ducks behind me. However, I barely got back to the house when we heard them quacking at the back gate. They had not only followed me down to the tank, but evidentially thought Mama Duck wanted them to follow her home. Time will tell about these little quackers..

Hay’s In The Barn

How affirming those words, “hay is in the barn”.  Have you ever wondered how hay is cut and baled? We cut our hay fields this week and baled both round and square bales. Below I share the process of carrying out this important ranch activity.

Two months ago our fields were brown and dusty. After our lengthy drought the fact that we obtained a cutting at all is fortunate. The process began two months ago.The rains this year came at the right time, namely just after we had fertilized the fields and then subsequent rain was well spaced till harvesting.

Trudy in Klein grass field

Trudy in waist high Klein grass field

Being a small operator, we don’t own the cutting, raking, and baling equipment. Instead I hire someone with equipment and pay a per bale charge. The charge for cutting and baling our hay is substantially less than buying it, especially so during our recent drought years.

Yours truly with baling equipment

Yours truly with baling equipment

When the hay has grown and begun to head out, the tractor pulls the cutter through the fields and lays it down, much like a giant scythe. The hay then needs to dry for several days. Because of the threat of rain this year, we baled the Klein grass into bales before it had completely dried. Once the hay was cut and dried, the tractor pulled a giant rake through the fields, creating a large snake-like furrow of hay. Next the tractor pulled the baling machine through the field and picked up the rows of grass,  turning it into thousand pound round bales or sixty pound square bales. The machine amazingly ties the bale tightly with twine or wire to hold it in place.

Hay rake

Hay rake

Trudy with Hay bale

Trudy with Hay bale

Given the higher than normal moisture content of the grass this year, we will leave the bales in the field for a week or so to dry before moving them to the hay barn. This interval diminishes the chance for spontaneous combustion. Yes, instances have occurred where barns have burned down due to prematurely enclosed hay bales.

Hay bales and Hay Barn

Hay bales and Hay Barn in distance

Next week we will move the bales (both the large round ones for cattle and the smaller coastal square bales for horses) to the barn to store for the winter. Placing  the hay in the barn is a particularly satisfying time, knowing the animals will have ample hay during the non-growing season.

Prospective consumers of hay

Prospective consumers of our hay