Wednesday, June 06, 2018

The Prairie Project

I'm going to return to posting on this blog site to document the prairie restoration project taking place at the Creech Farm this year. Tall grass prairies once covered twenty million acres of the Texas landscape. Less than one percent of those prairie lands remain. The loss of the prairies means the loss of habitat for a variety of creatures, such as the Bobwhite Quail, which was once plentiful in the state, wild turkey, dove, white-tail deer, and others. Prairies play a vital role in preserving water, both in quantity and quality, in conserving soil, and in attracting pollinators as well. So we are taking our pastures out of production and converting them to prairie.

This year we received a Pastures for Upland Birds (PUB) Grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW). TPW is providing us with the consulting services of our local wildlife biologist, Jamie Killian. They also supply the necessary herbicide to use in preparation of the land to remove invasive plants and to give the prairie grasses the best chance to survive when they are planted. They will also provide a no-till seed drill and a mixture of about forty varieties of grasses, wildflowers, and forbs that were native to prairies in this area. We, the land owners, supply the land (80 acres in this case) and someone to operate the machinery for the herbicidal treatments and the planting. We've hired a neighbor to do that, the young man who has been leasing the place to farm for the past ten years. I'm pretty certain he thinks we're crazy, but he has been willing to play along.

We have already made two applications of herbicide to the fields this spring. A third will be done in late August. Admittedly, this has been the most difficult thing to do. Melinda and I are not fans of chemicals. With this project, however, we will only get one chance to plant, and we want to give the desired flora the best chance of success with as little competition as possible. So right now, our fields look like the dead of winter, or like the product of extensive drought. Very little green appears anywhere.

In September we will plant. The no-till seed drill is used to keep from stirring up the seed bed of other plants that has accumulated over the years. Tilling would bring them up and give us a good crop of plants we are not interested in growing. Then we will pray for good fall and winter rains to provide the best germination. We hope to see the beginnings of a prairie in the spring.

To a casual observer, a prairie might look like a field someone neglected to mow. But it is a rich and diverse ecosystem. About 20 minutes from here is a 200 acre restored prairie created and maintained by the Kirchoff Family Their photos and story can be found on the Native Prairie Association of Texas website.

Once we have begun establishing the prairie, the work is not done. Prairies require maintenance. Invasive species of plants have to be identified and removed. Every few years it will need to be mowed, grazed, or burned. Places where germination does not succeed will require more planting. We will be setting up guzzlers to provide water for wildlife. Annual bird counts will be needed. The list goes on, and it is an exciting list to us. Volunteers will be welcome along the way.

Melinda came across this poem by Emily Dickenson, and we like it very much. Dickenson named it "To Make a Prairie (1755)."

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

So we have joined the Balcones Chapter of the Native Prairie Association of Texas and the Wilson County Wildlife Management Association and we are on a learning curve with this project. I plan to use this site to document the progress (or lack of it) along the way. For now, here are some photos of the wintery looking field awaiting a fall planting.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Black and White

I have hesitated to write anything about the shooting in the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, for good reason. Others have written and said better than I things that need to be said. At the same time, this is just not something I am comfortable remaining silent about, reposting the thoughts of others. It is not that I need anyone to read this or agree with it, but I need to speak. Silence just doesn’t seem right.

I grew up in Houston, Texas during a time of racial segregation. Until I was thirteen years old I knew the names of only two black people – George (no last name), the custodian at our Southern Baptist church, and Martha (no last name), a woman who came to our home occasionally over a couple of years to do our family’s laundry. That’s it. I did not know any black people and did not think that fact was important in any way.

When I was 13 (1965), desegregation began in Houston ISD. Three young black students were now part of the population of Hamilton Junior High School: Marshall Dill, Marshall Grayson, and Robert Williams. All three of them were my age and we played on the school football teams together for three years. Marshall Grayson was too small to play football, but was the team manager. I do not recall ever having a conversation with any of them. They were not my friends. I remember no sense of hatred, just separation. I do not recall any black female students being part of the student body. All of my teachers were white.

I have confused memories of the turmoil of the 60s. Riots in Watts and Detroit mingle with the peaceful, but violently resisted marches of MLK. Assassinations of the Kennedy's and King troubled me because they were troubling the world around me. I had no adult to interpret and untangle it what was taking place, presumably because they did not know themselves. The war in Vietnam and the protests against it showed up in my living room every evening at 6:00. We didn't talk about these things at church or school. Mostly I felt a fear as a result of it all. But I had no concepts of the issues of civil rights or peace for that matter. I have often wondered, had I been ten years older at the time, whether I might have gotten involved on the side I would now consider right.

In 1968, at Waltrip Senior High School, the black students must have numbered perhaps a hundred or so, out of around 2000 total. I did not know any of them. Not one. Mr. Cheney, my homeroom teacher in 11th grade, was the first African-American teacher I had ever had. As a senior I took Spanish from Mrs. Green and Physiology from Mrs. Christian, both African-Americans. Still no friends.

It was not until I was living in the residence hall at Houston Baptist University as a freshman that I met someone who would become my first black friend. Keith Jefferson lived in the suite next to mine. Over the next three years we became friends. He visited Melinda and me at our apartment in Ft. Worth when we went off to seminary and he eventually attended the seminary as well. Keith is now a missionary in Brazil. I owe him much. I had no black professors in college, seminary, or graduate school.

In the years that followed I would teach in a Baptist university and serve two Baptist churches as pastor in Houston, the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the country these days. It was in the role of pastor in my 30s and 40s that my experience began to deepen in regard to race relations, but honestly, it remained in quite shallow water. I got to know a number of African-America pastors in our city. I served as a kind of mentor of one of the guys. I preached a couple of times in black churches. My own congregation, with the exception of Dr. Bill King’s family, was lily white. I participated in a year-long discussion on racial reconciliation with pastors from many racial and ethnic backgrounds in our association. I made three trips to Uganda and worked with pastors there. This all helped, but it was woefully lame in comparison to what was needed.

Once I served on a jury panel in Harris County that opened my eyes for the first time to the issue of what is known now as “white privilege.” Following a trial in which a young Hispanic man was convicted of assault on a white police officer because he struggled during arrest and reached for the officer’s gun, I spoke with his attorney. The attorney asked me, “How do you feel when you see a police car drive down your street?” “Secure, safer,” I answered. He explained that would be the correct majority answer. Minority members of the community feel threatened. That had never dawned on me, of course, but it became more and more clear.

A friend of mine explained the difference between white and non-white, majority-minority, perspectives this way. When I see a news report about two white men robbing a convenience store, I don’t think, “I hope people don’t think all white guys are like that.” Not so, if you are a minority. Reports of two African-American or two Hispanic suspects simply reinforces racial stereotypes in the minds of the majority.  (A female student of mine made the same point about women preachers – she said that she felt like she represented her entire gender every time she preached. If a man preaches a poor sermon, people think, that guy can’t preach. If a woman does a poor job, the conclusion is women can’t preach.). This is the social reality of privilege. Those who enjoy it don’t notice it. We have a difficult time even acknowledging it. The system is just set up for us.

I saw this again this morning. NBC’s Meet the Press was covering the shooting in Charleston and related issues like the Confederate battle flag and gun violence. They showed a clip of a longer video in which inmates convicted for killing someone with a handgun were telling their stories, expressing their regret. The network editors selected the stories of two black inmates for the segment. When challenged about that by one of the African-American panelists, the moderator, Chuck Todd, explained that this was not a video about race, but about gun violence and that nothing was intended by that choice – this in an episode focused on an event where a white shooter had taken nine black lives. One of the other leading stories of the week concerned two white prison escapees in New York who had been convicted of murder. But the segment featured two black inmates. This is how it works. We just don’t see things. It is not (I suspect) intentional or malicious. We literally just don’t see. (Here’s Todd’slater explanation after catching a lot of flack. It still sounds like an explanation rather than an apology for thoughtlessness, which would have been more appropriate).  This is not about walking on eggshells or being politically correct. It is about loving your neighbor as yourself, the Golden Rule. But it requires our learning to see.

Later, on another news show, reporting on how Republican presidential candidates for the most part refused to take a position on the Confederate battle flag, saying it was an issue of state’s rights and should be left to the South Carolinians to decide, one of the Republican panelists said, “The flag is not a symbol of racial hatred to most white people.” She was probably right. She didn’t think to ask what it symbolized to black citizens. This is how it works. I don’t know how to fix it. Like most things, learning to see it is a good start.

More than anything, my African-American students at Truett over the past six years have been my teachers. To think of any of them facing what they actually do face in this culture, literally sickens me. To know that any of them could have been Rev. Clementa Pinckney is unthinkable. I still have so much to learn.

Racially unjust structures need to be fixed. Whatever laws can change those injustices need to be passed. Whatever symbolic changes can be made, like relegating the Confederate battle flag to the basement of a museum, should be made. Justice is going to be addressed in these ways.

Racism is not cured by justice, but by love. Laws cannot do that. Affection can. Friendship can. These are things government cannot accomplish, but followers of Jesus can. We can choose friendships. We can know each other. We can grow affection. We can speak when our friends are threatened. We can learn to see the privilege some of us live with and some of us don’t.

I have a trip to make to Waco on Wednesday. I’m staying over for a city-wide prayer and praise service at Toliver Chapel Missionary Baptist Church on Wednesday night to stand with other believers in the wake of this evil.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

And So It Begins . . .

Summer arrived today. I mark that neither by changes in temperature nor by the location of the sun in the sky, but by the shift of responsibilities. The spring semester ended in mid-May, followed immediately by a writing assignment and a trip to Portland, OR to present a paper at the College Theology Society/National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion Annual Meeting. The day after I returned I joined a colleague and six doctoral students in a two week, all-day seminar. That class ended yesterday. Today Melinda, Cole, and I headed for the farm, where we will remain for two months. Summer has arrived.

It has been only three weeks since we were here, but those three weeks in May were marked by frequent rains, and the grass on our place enjoyed it immensely. The wheat crop in the field did not benefit so much from all that water, however. Those storms hit just as the crop was ready for harvest, and it was beaten down by wind and rain. The field was too wet to harvest and the crop eventually was lost.

We engaged in the first of what will be several days of taming the place again. We have grass to mow, a garden to tend, flowerbeds to clear – the mornings will be full, I know. Melinda dug what potatoes remained and we gathered the first of the tomatoes.

After lunch friends came by. We hope that happens a lot this summer. We shared coffee with David and Diann Mobley and caught up on our intermittently separated lives. We had dinner at Lew’s in Floresville and returned to the farm where we were treated for an hour to a powerful display of wind, rain, and lightening. The electricity was out for most of that time, but fortunately not before we’d made another pot of coffee. And when the storm passed, we were treated to a bright, beautiful bow in the sky, a reminder of hope.

I  have hopes for the summer -- some finishing detail work on the remodeling we undertook almost two years ago, visits from family, friends, and students, being able to be here long enough to keep the garden going, a couple of brief writing assignments, reading and preparing three classes for the fall, reading James MacClendon’s 3 volume systematic theology, and working on Spanish. We’ll spend a couple of days next week at Neal’s Lodges in Concan, TX with Alan, Kat, Madison, and Austin. I have a one day trip to make to Waco in a couple of weeks. In late July I’ll preach in Houston and in August I’ll make a trip there to speak to a group of African-American pastors and to pick up grandkids to bring back to Floresville for a week. But the farm will be home base this summer, and that pleases me.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Showers of Blessing

Last night I watched with hope the bright greens, yellows, oranges, reds, and purples on the radar screens on my KENS5 app. Thunderstorms exploded around Abilene in the afternoon and made their way south and east through dry, parched Texas terrain. Waco would get some of the rain. And, hopefully, the storms would hold together as they moved past Junction and on into the San Antonio area. And they did!

By the time I went to bed, lightening was dancing in the sky above the farm. I raised the blinds in the bedroom to enjoy the show and wait for the rain to fall. I was sleepier than I thought. I went unconscious almost immediately and remained so through the night.

But when I awoke this morning I heard thunder and looked out to see falling rain and large pools of water on the caliche driveway.  I stepped out onto the front porch to be greeted by much cooler air and the fragrance of rain. I made my morning coffee and sat on the porch and just watched it for an hour.

The night before I’d parked my truck beside the garage rather than in front of it so my view of the fields would not be blocked. When the rain stopped this morning I went out to the truck to move it. I drove exactly one foot forward and the left rear tire sank to its axle. A gopher tunnel collapsed under the weight of the truck  and I was stuck in the mud in the middle of a place experiencing Exceptional Drought. A little work with a sharp shooter shovel and I had dug a ramp out of the whole and drove out.

Yesterday at sunset a huge roadrunner appeared just outside the kitchen window and climbed onto the edge of the yellow plastic swimming pool the grandkids enjoy. A bit later I  took a walk out into the field behind the house and saw a pair of coyotes running across the dry field of wheat stubble. Looking out the window this morning I saw some movement on the ground. I went out to investigate. I have a new wildlife sighting to report: two dung beetles were rolling doggie poop back home to enjoy. Never saw that before. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day Greetings

Just before leaving Houston yesterday I stopped by Alan & Kat’s to pick up the dogs. The family was attending a birthday party and was not yet home. Alan sent me a text asking me if I could hang out for a while until they got back because Madison had something to give me. It was a Father’s Day greeting consisting of an original, signed painting on canvas entitled “Wheat” by two artists named Madison and Austin. In a somewhat Impressionistic style, it presents our recent wheat crop and the huge oak tree behind our farm house. It’s value is inestimable.

In addition to the painting, I was given a coffee cup with “Papa” bear on it. Madison explained the connection between the bear on the cup and my association with Baylor University. I get it.

I was greeted by other things when I arrived at the farm late on Saturday night. Two deer bounded away from the house as I drove up. I performed my usual initial inspections of the place. Before entering the house I took a flashlight and walked around outside. I checked out the X-Garden and discovered that the row of corn plants had run their course and were wilted and brown, just like the entire field of corn across the road. The ears that grew on the brown stalks had been devoured by our pet rabbits who operate the garden in our absence.

Two small eggplants hung on a bush. I planned to get them in the morning. Several large green tomatoes were also enduring the heat of the summer. A few butternut squash were available for harvest. Purple zinnias, orange zinnias, and wild sunflowers decorated the place. The biggest surprise was the melons. Just three weeks ago the watermelons were no bigger than my thumb. Now seven large melons were lying on the ground in the garden. This is encouraging, since I went to Bush's roadside produce stand in Stockdale to buy a watermelon this morning only to be told they had none because of the drought. I'm not sure what I will do with rabbits that decide watermelons are on their diet.

(This morning I returned to the garden to get what I could – the squash and a bouquet of flowers. The eggplants had become rabbit food over night. And one of the big green tomatoes was on the bunny buffet as well.)

Inside the house another surprise awaited me last night. I entered the utility room to switch the water heater from “Vacation” to “Hot,” and found myself stepping into two inches of water. The water heater had sprung a leak in the last two weeks. Water had run into the garage and out the garage door. I spent an hour and a half mopping up the mess. Cold showers only until it is replaced.

When I stepped into the garage I found that John, my new lawn tractor, had flats on both front tires, a consequence of encountering mesquite and cactus thorns during his last workout. Fortunately, I knew about a magic solution called “Slime” that repairs and then prevents such leaks. I picked up some today and will repair the tires tomorrow.

This morning I was greeted by the usual wildlife – our pet rabbit checking out the garden, the cardinals gathering to devour the sunflower seeds and to enjoy the birdbath, hummingbirds checking in periodically for a refill of the sweet, red nectar I’d hung for them, and Mexican eagles patrolling the field.

Then I received the new version of Father’s Day cards, text messages from my children with embarrassing evaluations of my performance as a dad. Leaks, flats, and rabbits are nothing compared to such things as original artwork, coffee mugs, and Father's Day texts.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Anniversary Weekend

Memorial Day is about remembering the dead -- those who have sacrificed life for our freedom. Wedding anniversaries are about remembering the living -- celebrating the time that has passed and the sacrificing of life for each other over the years in small and large ways.

Thirty seven years ago tomorrow, Melinda and I drove my sister’s 1974 maroon Malibu with the white vinyl roof from our honeymoon suite at the Ramada Inn in Houston to my grandmother’s house in Floresville to spend our first week of marriage exploring San Antonio, New Braunfels, and just being alone at the farm. Now that place is ours. We were there again this weekend, but did not have much time alone. None, in fact. But that’s ok.

We were joined by Alan and Kat, celebrating their seventh anniversary (rookies, still). Alan and Kat brought the next generation, Madison and Austin, with them, and the aging grand-dogs, Porter and Presley. Jenna drove up on Saturday. And Saturday evening, the Farmers, friends of Alan and Kat, arrived with their two daughters, Zoe and Ava. And their dog.

I had responsibilities in McKinney on Sunday morning, and so made the now familiar flight from San Antonio to Dallas on Saturday night and returned on Sunday afternoon. In my absence, the entire entourage drove to Leakey, Texas to swim in the Frio River at Neal’s. About the time I landed at SAT, they were done swimming. We agreed to rendezvous at La Gloria, a Mexican street food restaurant on the San Antonio River that we’d enjoyed once before. The celebration of our thirty-seven years and Alan and Kat’s seven (rookies) involved the eleven of us (dogs were still at the farm) dining for a couple of hours on likes of tlayudas, tortas, potosinos, and molcajetes. We walked down to the river and enjoyed the evening that was quickly cooling down from the hundred degrees we’d endured most of the day.

We spent Monday, Memorial Day, exploring the farm, finding and identifying a variety of wild flowers, and making a road trip to Rhew Orchard , a couple of miles down County Road 401 from our place. The peaches were ripe and peach cobblers were still warm in the Rhew’s store when we drove up. We took one of those back with us. Some amazing vegetarian tacos awaited us for lunch back at the farm. Then cobbler and coffee. Then a lawn sprinker aimed at the trampoline in the backyard kept the kids occupied and drained off some of their energy (not all of it) in preparation for their three hour trip back to Houston.

By 4:30, the Farmers and Alan Creeches had left. I forgot how quiet my life normally is. Melinda, Jenna, and I cleaned up the house and spent the remainder of the evening watching 8 mm films Melinda’s dad had made of their family in the early 1960s. We’d dug out the 50 year old films and Sears projector while moving in the past week. Amazingly, the machine worked perfectly and the old films entertained us for several hours. We saw brief footage of Hurricane Carla and a short appearance of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans astride Trigger and Buttermilk making their way through downtown Houston in the Fat Stock Show and Rodeo Parade. We watched ten year old Melinda playing, attending Vacation Bible School at Shady Acres Baptist Church, and performing in the “May Fete” at Helms Elementary. We saw her mom and dad, who have been on the other side for many years now, walking about, laughing and enjoying life as much younger people. We saw Missy Momma, Melinda’s grandmother, in most of the short films. It made me wish my folks had made some movies along the way.

We returned to Waco today, ready to start the summer school work tomorrow. Melinda will be taking Latin all summer. I teach one Doctor of Ministry Seminar. Jenna will be an intern at KWTX in Waco, while taking nine semester hours of government and economics online.

Meanwhile, we have a lot to celebrate and a lot to remember.

The X Garden Update: May 2011

I understand some of Mr. McGregor’s consternation regarding rabbits in his garden. This morning I went out to clean up the X Garden and found Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail enjoying the greenest place on the property during this extended dry period. It looked like they’d managed to gnaw down at least two corn stalks. I’m pretty much at their mercy, I suppose, since they are present every day and I’m not.

We harvested a few more yellow squash, a handful of cherry tomatoes, and one small eggplant – not enough to live on. But hope remains. We planted relatively late, so our production is behind schedule. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

Watermelons are just beginning to form on the spreading vines and the bees are doing their part pollinating the plants.

Beans look pretty poor for some reason and we may have crowded our corn plants a bit too tightly. They are still short and the ears that are forming seem small. We’ll have to wait until I return in three weeks for a verdict on that.

Tomatoes are covering the vines, but we have few red ones. Butternut squash are showing up, but are not yet ready to be gathered. The pepper plants are not making a showing yet.

Here’s what I think I’ve learned so far. The irrigation system is perfect (although a connection has popped loose twice and I have had to tape it). Despite less than two inches of rain in three months, the garden remains verdant. The mulching with straw has both preserved moisture and has prevented an outbreak of weeds. That seems to be working. I do believe it would have been good to plant a couple of weeks earlier. And we’ll need to consult a corn expert about density of the crop before having another go with that one.

I’m excited about the watermelons. A dozen little ones are forming; the plants look healthy and green and are covered with yellow blossoms. I’m forecasting an enormous crop. A single good one would be nice, however.

The next X Garden report will come in three weeks.