Friday, April 13, 2012

Buffalo Bayou, Houston Texas. Part 2.

This is the final installment of a trilogy from Houston's urban wilderness. To read them from the beginning, click here.

On my last day there, after nearly a week in windowless conference rooms, I finally had a chance to continue my adventures in Houston’s urban wilderness. The rain was long gone. It was Sunday, gloriously sunny and warm. Bursting with cabin fever, I was more than ready to head upstream to explore Buffalo Bayou further.

My adventure began with mixed messages. I descended through one of the canoe-shaped arches down a long stairway into the deeply sunken river corridor. Artist John Runnels, creator of the gateway structures, likens Buffalo Bayou to Houston’s “birth canal.” Runnels calls his 20-ft. stainless steel sculptures “Dream Boats” and they each bear a unique river-inspired poetic phrase, such as “Water is the most beautiful mirror of voices…sing the stream.”

I did hear voices. Whether they were echoing off the water or under the Sabine Street Bridge I couldn’t tell.

Swamped trail turns back hikers
A narrow strip of worn asphalt led me a mere couple hundred yards before it was swallowed up in silt. The sandy trail devolved into mud and then a small backwater of the river itself lapped over it. A fat fish leaped with a resounding splash, as if for emphasis. Wilderness seemed to be reestablishing a beachhead in the genteel park. Although it turned me back, I considered it a welcome omen.

I crossed over the bridge.

The north river trail was a 10-ft. wide white swath of concrete so new there still were construction fences next to it and patches of dirt awaiting fresh sod alongside. Skateboarders converged on the adjacent Lee & Joe Jamail Skatepark. A steady stream of cyclists of all ages sped past me as I strolled down the gently sloping ramp towards the river.

The bike trail was as active as it had been vacant during my previous excursion. Clearly the riverside park is in high demand for the recreational opportunities it offers and park developers were eagerly, and extensively, providing infrastructure appropriate to meet it. I began to discern a pattern.

The park guide explains, “Buffalo Bayou slowly winds its way through the center of the fourth largest city in the United States. Over the past 170 years of Houston's development and continued growth, the natural habitats of Buffalo Bayou have been impacted by human development, invasive species introduction, and pollution.”

I am struck by the passive, understated phrase, “…have been impacted by human development….”

I sauntered along the concrete, flanked on both sides by lawns, searching for natural habitats.

In the trees overhead, great bunches of mistletoe hang ominously, like macabre ornaments. A.k.a. “witches broom,” the parasitic species was long considered a destructive pest. Now it is recognized as beneficial to biodiversity. Its purportedly amorous effect upon those who stand under it has an uncertain origin in early mystical Christianity. How often our image of the maleficent gets superimposed on the pious!
Painted turtles
On a wooden bridge that crosses a tiny tributary, I leaned over the rail and looked down to see two Texas-sized painted turtles warily staring back up at me. They were secure enough. I was an anomaly. No one else paused to look.

Purple winecups in the grass

Referring to the Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s Restoration Plan I am cheered. Programs “to rebuild native habitats” are in place that include, “erosion control, reforestation, habitat improvement, and species diversification.” The chicken or egg conundrum is how best to build popular appreciation for nature: Which comes first, attracting people to the outdoors or reestablishing healthy, sustainable habitats?

Once upon a time we all lived in nature. Nature – landscape, atmosphere, water, plants, animals – is the original and still necessary infrastructure for life on earth. Now that most of us live in cities, we must reintroduce ourselves to nature. If our parks are completely tame, reduced to a flash of green that we speed past on high-tech bicycles in our Lycra outfits, how will we come to value turtles that lurk under bridges? Or snakes in the tall grass? Surely there must be snakes! Surely there must be places for tall grass.

I had to walk a while before I could shake off the city and pay attention to birdsong instead of the sound of traffic. Eventually, the lawns shrank back a bit from the river. There were more copses and bushier banks, if not much tall grass. Some lacy pepperweed, clumps of primroses, lantana, and tiny pink oxalis blossoms began to appear. Ripe mulberries stained the lawn under overhanging branches. A whiff redolent of lilac and other less recognizable aromas wafted now and then from bushes and trees.

Since all of Texas is exotic to me I don’t know how much of what I was seeing was native or exotic except the invasive chinaberry trees. Fortunately, they are identified in the restoration plan.

Wild onion in bloom
Crossing to the south bank, I find an appealingly boggy draw between the now roadside bike trail and a large dog park. Down in the muck a single, curiously shaped plant bore a single tiny white blossom. As I bent down to photograph it I made the novice’s mistake, immortalized in St. Exupéry’s The Little Prince, of thinking it rare and therefore special.

“I thought that I was rich,” laments the little prince when he comes to the rose garden, “with a flower that was unique in all the world; and all I had was a common rose.”

A short while later, back on the north side, the bike path veered off up a hill to parallel Memorial Drive. I stayed near the river and, in a corner spared by the lawn mower, was rewarded with an abundance of the same flowers, which I have since learned was wild onion. Contrary to the little prince, I felt richer knowing that there were multitudes of wildflowers where before the solitary one seemed so tenuous and fragile.

I didn’t notice the signs as I approached the Waugh Drive overpass but as soon as I was underneath I stopped short, mesmerized by a mysterious clicking or pinging. The sound was constant, almost mechanical, but with an arrhythmic, organic regularity. Echoing between bridge deck and ground, it seemed to emanate from the very air. Mystified, I asked a passerby what was making the sound. “Bats,” he said succinctly as he strode purposefully past.

Waugh Bridge Bat Colony
Of course! The slightly pungent odor that I had barely noticed grew suddenly powerful. I looked down. The ground was covered in tiny granules of dark guano. I looked up. I couldn’t see a single bat, but it was clear enough where they were hiding. Tightly spaced concrete bridge support beams stretching the width of the roadway were separated by very narrow crevices. The bridge designers had inadvertently created an ideal bat sanctuary!

I did see the signs on my way out. The first said, “CAUTION: You May Wish to Stand Back During Bat Flight, to Avoid Droppings.” The second was in larger, bolder type. “CAUTION: Never Handle Grounded Bats.” Below those were the same two messages in Spanish.

This is where, marvelously, urban meets wilderness. Untamable, bats, like wolves, embody the wild. Often feared, bats usually have an attraction rating well below mistletoe and even snakes. But, far from being considered a nuisance, the Waugh Bridge Bat Colony, as it is known here in Buffalo Bayou, has become a popular local attraction. The nightly emergence of up to 300,000 bats is rightly considered a spectacle worthy of attention.

The Buffalo Bayou Partnership website highlights the paradoxical relationship we have with these wild creatures: “For an amazing, from the water, view of the bats' emergence, reserve your spot on our Bat Colony Pontoon Boat Tours!” How wonderful is that? I wished I had another day in Houston so that I could experience it myself.

Twin pedestrian/bike bridge and skyline
If only more wildlife could survive under bridges in the shadows of skyscrapers!

Under yet another bridge I find a young mother with a beached kayak. Her daughter wandered aimlessly nearby. She told me that they had floated five miles downstream with the intention of paddling back upstream to return to their car. Then she pointed to her husband up next to Memorial Drive calling a taxi with his cell phone. The current had been too strong.

I enjoyed a sunny afternoon on Buffalo Bayou along with hundreds of other people and five turtles. As I again neared the tall skyscrapers downtown I did see a small black snake slither quickly through the not so tall grass. My journey ended as it had begun, up the steep stairs next to the Sabine Bridge and through Runnel’s dream boat. As I reached the top my emotions were not unlike those I’d felt coming out of the underground my first day in Houston. (See previous post.)

This time, however, it was nature I’d left behind: the long, serpentine green park and the river slithering between its steep banks, inexorably carving its way through the city. The Buffalo Bayou Park system is tame for an urban wilderness. I prefer wilder places where more of the earth’s original infrastructure remains – mulberry trees and mistletoe, turtles, wildflowers, yes, but also woodlands, wetlands, and uncut prairie grass; and less concrete or lawn. Nevertheless, it was a refreshing respite from the grid.

Is it too much to hope that Houston’s “birth canal” can provide a rebirth of nature in our fourth largest city? Intentions are good. But we’ve been riding a swift current towards a future ever more determined by urban, manufactured infrastructures and technologies. How will we know when we’ve gone so far that we can’t paddle back upstream?

Mulberries reach out to the grid
The voice of the fox from The Little Prince whispers in my ear, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

Click here to go back to “Buffalo Bayou, Part 1.”

Click here to go to “Waking to a New World,” the first installment from this Houston trilogy.

In closing I should repeat the disclaimer in my first installment: These stories are personal reflections inspired by my limited experience. I have not explored Houston – or even all of Buffalo Bayou – sufficiently to evaluate the overall environment. There are other parks and natural areas in the metro region. I hope to get back to explore more of them one day. For information about the park, go to Buffalo Bayou Partnership.


  1. Awesome info bro.Best one in the world BRO!!!!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. What a blog!

    Looking this article, I am feeling very good. It is very interesting and informative blog.

    Water Cleanup Houston