Nature Therapy

A boy bounces down a bayou with binoculars.  “Let’s check Turtle Rock, Mom”, he says, pulling me down the bank to peer expectantly at the cluster of rocks in the middle, scanning for the little turtles that we have been seeing scrambling back into the water at our approach.  We hear a different bird call from a nearby tree, and walk over to investigate.  We determine it was just a blue jay, making that musical warble that they occasionally make.  We marveled over a June bug that was being chased by a line of ants, and then over a life-or-death drama of an earthworm and same ants.  We find a cracked egg and then a whole one half-hidden in the bushes near a fence line, and then we have to check on it on the regular during our walks after this.

Such is life out in Shadow Creek Ranch.  I’ve been absent from this cyberspace for quite some time due to our house renovations, search for a new house, and the maddening pace of adding a PhD program on top of our already-packed lives.  Any free time was being spent studying, learning, writing papers, or packing, unpacking – all the trials of the past year.  I very nearly lost my mind.  This summer, I have been trying to reclaim it.  Part of the healing process needed to be a commitment to spending time in nature.

We felt a little adrift at first in our new house, and decided what we needed was to find all the nature spaces within a short drive from home.  The bayou is very literally in our backyard, and a very short drive away is Shadow Creek Nature Park, a place I visit on the regular.

It is a walk in the woods that we want, though.  So far, 1776 Park in Friendswood is the closest we have come to the ideal patch of woods.  On an afternoon walk a couple of weeks ago, I found myself thinking about terpenes, the aromatic chemicals of plants, and how they affect our bodies (or perhaps the more correct word is “phytoncides”).  I was already several degrees calmer just from soaking in the scenery, but the smell of the forest was also lowering my blood pressure surely.  Nature therapy – it’s what the doctor (should have) ordered.

In Korea, the idea of the healing power of forests is so convincing that they have created 37 state run forest recreation centers and trained over 500 forest healing instructors.  Several countries, including the US, have followed suit and dedicated resources towards forest-as-therapy programs.  Most of us intuitively perceive nature is good for us, but now we have science to prove it.  In one study, 2 two-hour walks in nature over consecutive days resulted in a 50% increase in natural killer cells, which help prevent cancer and other diseases, in human subjects, compared to those who remained in an urban environment.  Those benefits persisted up to thirty days later, where those same cells were seen to still be around 25% increased over the urban-only subjects.  The benefits of nature can be obtained in something as simple as watching a video of green spaces or smelling the aromas of the woods.

Some of this information I learned from a podcast (“Hidden Brain”) that another student in my program turned me on to.  I am going to try to take this knowledge to heart, as I approach a third semester committed to trying to maintain my sanity this time around.  Perhaps I might even find the time to write some of those experiences down, in between assignments.


Sometimes in life, you see a road and wonder what is down there.  For the past few years, that road for me has been 955.  Just past Hruska’s on Highway 71 Austinbound, there at the 955 junction a sign says “Fayetteville” and points east.  I took us down that road, to settle my curiosity about what we would find.
We knew at least a few things we would find, from experience and poking around the internet.  I read about their historic town square and antique shops, and noted a couple of restaurants that were worth trying.  I also knew it was close to Rohan Meadery, a place that is dear to our heart. I also know it was close to places on Hwy 71 that I wanted to stop in at and spend some time.  I also learned that this town is very close to the locally famous Round Top, which draws huge crowds during their antique weekends.  Due to this tourist surge, there are several B&B and AirBnB type rentals around the area.  Browsing the Chamber of Commerce page, I found several places to choose from, and ended up renting us a room at Granny’s Retreat.
Granny’s Retreat has several rooms to choose from, and this newly built “Breakfast Pavilion” that would be great to hang out in with a group. I spent some time daydreaming about what kind of group gathering I could have here, but I haven’t come to any conclusions yet.
The place was conveniently located right down the road from Lake Fayette Oak Thicket Park, and even though that park was not initially on my radar, we spent some time exploring this park throughout the Saturday we spent out here. After a hearty breakfast at Orsak’s Cafe in the town square, we explored the town square for a bit.  An old courthouse stood in the center of the square, and you could go inside of it to see what it was like in the olden days.  Jason took the boys upstairs, where they got a sense of how lawbreakers were kept in the past. We also poked around in the general store, keeping a safe distance from the dogs that were in the back of trucks in the parking area.  One truck had a big sign saying “Beware of Dog” and that truck needed an extra wide berth.  The dog was chained to the truck and perched on the window, and about jumped out at the kids even though they were several feet away.  After this, we headed over to Oak Thicket Park and waded and splashed in the swimming area of the lake. After a couple hours of this, we went back to our digs, got cleaned up and rested for a bit.
Midday, we hit the road to explore the two places on 71 that we are always zooming past and never have time to stop in. The first place we had to check out was the Industrial Country Market, a “Non-General General Store”. If you haven’t stopped in, you really should.  There were some real treasures in there.  The best part about this experience was that they were having a sale due to the Royal Wedding, and everything in the store except consignment items was 50% off.  My middle son had his wallet with dollars he was dying to spend, and he and I both bought all kinds of fun finds. There is a whole outdoor area we didn’t even explore (including a greenhouse, a pond, an art walk and a model train layout), as we were taking turns sitting in the running truck with the sleeping toddler. Next time, we will try to plan to arrive when it is not his nap time, so we can all explore inside and out.
Then we stopped at Rosemary’s Winery so I could dash in and sample some wine to figure out which bottle to buy for us (Blanc de Bois was the winner). Soon after this, the sleeping toddler woke up and it was time to eat lunch. We had several choices in La Grange, and decided on SeaLand because the middle son wanted calamari. The calamari was good, but the other food was just okay. We had enough leftover from this meal that it also served as dinner back at the property later in the evening. The kids enjoyed playing the old arcade games and putting quarters in the machines for little treasures in plastic eggs.
After this, it was time to go to Rohan. This meadery is also part of Blissful Folly Farms, where they grow the honey to make the honey wine. Typically, there is live music on Saturday afternoons in their outdoor pavilion. I purchased us some delicious Peach Bellini wine slushes to sip on while we listened to the music and watched the youngest make new friends. The kids picked out honey sticks to suck on and played with the giant honey comb jenga set.
On the way back, we decided to go for an evening hike at Oak Thicket Park. We had two choices in trails – the six mile round trip trail, or the 1 1/4 mile nature trail. We were warned that the rangers had not checked on that trail for a while, so it was a little rough. We decided we liked it rough and tried it anyway.
The trail went down to a lake and probably circled it (appeared to on the map), but we lost the trail going around the lake so just went back out the way we came in. Everyone had a good time but we did get too close to nature on this walk, as we all took turns pulling down spider webs across the trail, and all but the toddler ended up with chigger bites afterwards.
Some of the best times of the weekend out in Fayetteville was our down time. The porch in front of our room was a lovely place to watch the clouds float by.  We watched a tractor bailing hay in the nearby field.  Sebastian made some bubbles, but that was very short-lasting because he immediately spilled the bubble solution.  We watched a wren in the bushes and had close encounters with wasps.  We had several conversations with Rinn, the owner of the place, who was so much like my former mother-in-law in her mannerisms and way of speaking that I kept feeling transported back in time about twenty years.  Even some of the decor in the room was much like the house I lived in with my first husband when we first moved in together, a house in the country that belonged to my in-laws.  The scenery and sounds were much the same – fields of hay, mooing cows – and I kept expecting to hear the sound of a crop-duster zooming overhead.  Despite the fact that I left that place in my past and have no desire to return to it, I would want to return to Granny’s Retreat, and bring some friends next time.  At the very least, this area is worth another day trip sometime, as it was really enjoyable.


It’s a spring morning in Texas in the middle of peak migration.  A flock of birders is collecting in the parking lot of the Boy Scout Woods, one of the four Houston Audubon bird sanctuaries at High Island.  Their colors vary, but mostly stick to a neutral beige, brown or tan in order to blend in with their surroundings.  Their field marks include binoculars and/or cameras and/or scopes hanging from their necks, along their sides or tucked up under their arms.  Some might have eye rings, but most are missing wing bar coloring or crown or median stripes.

This roughly-assembled lot will migrate a short distance en masse to check in and pay their small day use fee (unless they already have their yearly High Island patch, a collectible badge of honor among birders).  The leaders of the bird walk appear, healthy looking fellows from exotic places like Guatemala and Ecuador, and they begin to set the rules and expectations for the walk.  Then the flock returns to their original spot, as the parking lot of this sanctuary is actually a high point in the walk.  Several orioles and tanagers are spotted.

After this, the group migrates en masse to a small field behind the little house that serves as the Houston Audubon’s field office in this little town.  There is a rope that serves as a boundary between the world the humans are allowed to exist in and the world in which only the birds belong.  There are three guides and probably thirty birders standing along the rope boundary with their binoculars raised.  Every few moments, someone would call out a birds name and point.

More often, a person would gesture or say a few words of description, and somehow with this abbreviated type of communication, those cued in nearby would look and add to the descriptions, until the bird guides put it all together into words that everyone could understand.  For instance, one birder says, “fork in the tree”, and a second person might add, “yellow breast”, and then the bird guide says, loud enough for all to hear, “Yellow Throated Vireo, four o’clock, on the right branch of the fork in the second tree back”.  Or, “something’s moving over here” (gestures loosely in a direction), “blue”, “Northern Parula, everyone, three o’clock!”.

Some birds would make the group gasp when they appeared, in mutual excitement and appreciation.  Then, there would be the more rare sightings, excitement evident in the guide’s voice when he rang them out: “Chestnut Sided Warbler, everyone!”, “Yellow Billed Cuckoo, in the back”, “Cerulean Warbler, just dropped down in the back area of greenery”.  Times like these, the excitement of seeing something new would start running along the spine, the message starting in the brain and moving all the way down to the body’s posterior, sending dopamine surges along with it.  During these times, I realized that at this point in my life, these kind of experiences have actually become more enjoyable than sex, more exciting than the prospect of taking off clothes and moving around in conjunction with another human being.  The group bird-gasms from seeing new birds appear, spotting them in the binocs or the scope and getting a good look, were activating my reward center in my brain more than (or at least as much as?) reaching a climax in intimate partnerships.  Is this what happens when you get old?  Is this what happens after three kids and a long monogamous partnership?  Or is this just what happens when you reach maturity?

We don’t have great pictures to show for this excitement, but perhaps you would prefer to imagine your own anyways.  Trust me when I tell you, this experience was definitely worth the journey. 10/10 would do it again.


Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge: Winter Birds

Crested Caracara
Yellow Crowned Night Heron
Roseatte Spoonbill
Tricolored Heron
Blue Winged Teal
Savannah Sparrow (?)
Marsh Wren
Red Tailed Hawk
A Peaceful Stretch
Not a Bird
Glossy Ibis
Northern Shoveler
American Coot
Eastern Phoebe
Mystery Bird – Orange Crowned Warbler?
Not a Bird. It’s Anahuac, after all!
Pied Billed Grebe
Shovelers….doing what ducks do
Coot, Scaup, Gallinule
Tons of Ibis, Cormorants, and various duck types


We spent the afternoon yesterday exploring a small part of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and the Trinity River area.  The daily total was 29 species seen, for a total of 49 for the year so far, not a bad start towards my goal of 200 species for the year.

I did not see the rails I came here to find, but we did have a rare treat while walking along the Willow Trail:  a bald eagle was spotted overhead, and then we spied another eagle sitting at the top of a nearby tree.  It was huge, much bigger than we would have expected a Bald Eagle to be.  It was brown and white streaked, even on the head, not solid brown on top like a juvenile Baldie.  We suspected what we saw was a Golden Eagle, which has been reported over there in that area (although maybe not in January?).  It would have been awesome to have a picture to show for that, but Jason did not bring the camera while we were walking around (what? why?).  Now that I am thinking about it, though, perhaps it was a big red tailed hawk?

We drove around Shoveler Pond (2.5 miles), and it ended up being a slow drive because these two ladies in a pickup in front of us kept stopping to look at the birds with their binoculars.  I get it…that is what we were all doing….but they did not have continuous forward movement and did not use pull outs to move aside for faster traffic.  There was a LOT of stopping and no way around them.

I was feeling some anxiety because my older kids were at home and had some issue with the oven while trying to bake a pizza for lunch – turns out they child-locked it, I did not even know that was a thing – and also wanted to get home to make use of some Sebastian nap time to get things done.  Also, after a bit, it was the same birds over and over again.  Look, more coots, more herons, more egrets…okay nothing to see here, time to move on.  I don’t know what is the proper etiquette for this kind of thing, but I felt like giving those slow ladies a piece of my mind.  At the very end, they finally pulled to the side at one of the pull outs, and then gave us a dirty look while we passed.  I gave it right back!  Thought about adding a hand gesture, too.  I don’t know what that says about me.

I have this idea of exploring all the wildlife refuges within driving distance of Houston this year, and this was a nice start, despite those ladies.