by | Sep 19, 2021 | Feature, Landscapes, Native Plants

Driving from a small cabin near Navasota, Texas, to the Katy Prairie Conservancy’s Indiangrass Preserve, I crossed three county lines (Grimes, Waller and Harris), passed sporadic gatherings of cows and horses behind well-maintained white wooden fences, and noted many roadside automotive sales displays and a preponderance of pink evening primroses (Oenothera speciosa) among other spring blooms. It was April, and I was on a trip — albeit a short road trip not far from my home in Austin — but, still, I was in motion. The morning was cool, and I let the air in through open windows. It felt good.

But the inspiration for this trip sprung from a train of thought very much rooted in place. Think about where you’ve spent much of your last year and a half. If you’re like me, and many other fortunate-to-be-able-to-work-from-home office types, you’ve spent a lot of it in a chair at home. Maybe it’s a new chair because nothing in-house was comfortable enough for 40 hours a week.

Whether you work(ed) from home or not, you have likely spent more of your recent history in one place than is typical — or than you’d like to. Sit in that place now, and try to visualize the long passage of time it’s existed through. Go way back. Imagine what was there before your house or apartment building, before the city was a city or the town was a town. Imagine what grew there, on that patch of earth. If you’re in eastern parts of Central Texas, there’s a good chance you’re on the site of a former tallgrass prairie.

A view of grasses on a tall grass prairie. There are trees far away in the background.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) fills much of the scene with its recognizable russet-colored tufts; introduced pines form a line along the eastern edge of the prairie. PHOTO Amy McCullough

I went to the Indiangrass Preserve in search of what had been where my home office sits now. I wanted to stand within a natural area that represents what once covered 250 million acres of land from Texas north to Canada and from Ohio west to Kansas. Tallgrass prairie is now one of our most threatened ecosystems. The Indiangrass Preserve is part of the greater Katy Prairie Preserve, which encompasses nearly 15,500 acres, including wetlands, grasslands, grazing lands and small creeks. The Indiangrass Preserve is also home to the Katy Prairie Conservancy’s Field Office and Native Seed Nursery, but the whole affair is strikingly still, an unassuming plot of land that feels quite remote, even though it’s a mere 10 miles from behemoth Highway 290 coursing through tiny Waller, Texas.

From top: The dried flowers of rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) area shown in silhouette against a vibrant blue sky. The bright pink flower of a winecup (Callirhoe involucrata) is shown with an insect inside looking out. Pink evening primroses (Oenothera speciosa) bloom near a pothole, or water collection area in this type of prairie.

FROM TOP Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) cuts a striking silhouette against a vibrant blue sky; a perennial, it sprouts new growth from its roots each year. An insect at home in a winecup (Callirhoe involucrata) is just one of many signs of life on the prairie. Pink evening primroses (Oenothera speciosa) adorn a pothole, one of the features of the preserve elaborated on by interpretive signs. PHOTOS Amy McCullough

The preserve’s Ann Hamilton Trail (named for a local conservationist) is only 1.5 miles long, but it weaves through a 55-acre prairie-wetland restoration representing the history of our land. I walk every loop, captivated by life: a cardinal greeting me at the entrance, evidence (scat) of critters enjoying the prevalent dewberries (Rubus trivialis), turtles resting quietly in shallow water, big fat bumblebees and painted lady butterflies, transparent-and-black Widow Skimmer dragonflies, and grasshoppers everywhere. I am struck by the beauty of a bluestem pricklypoppy (Argemone albiflora) in bloom and return to take its picture over and over before leaving.

Before that last poppy visit, I skirt a series of prairie potholes and learn that they are circular wetlands created where wind has blown sand deposits out of old river channels, leaving clay bottoms that stay wet for weeks or months at a time. Farther along, the trail map I printed ahead of time acknowledges that a line of pine trees to the east is not native to the prairie. They were planted by humans many years ago and have since become roosting sites for native owls, hawks and bald eagles. “Although these trees were not a part of the original prairie of the Indiangrass Preserve,” the guide says, “we will retain [them] so they can continue to serve wildlife.”

There really isn’t one unique state of natural conditions for any given landscape.

It leaves me feeling hopeful for the future. Like those introduced pine trees, my neighbors and I don’t necessarily “belong” in our landscape. But perhaps we can embrace our combined reality and work with it; perhaps we can do more good than harm. As Emma Marris argues in “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World,” “There really isn’t one unique state of natural conditions for any given landscape.”

Even if what belongs where I’m sitting and working isn’t a rental house in a quickly growing city, even if what should be here is a thriving tallgrass prairie, I am comforted by the fact that there are Gulf Coast toads living in my backyard. They come out at sundown every evening and hop around the existing turfgrass and the pots of my native plant container garden. They — we, rather — represent a mix of what was and what is.

The Katy Prairie Conservancy works to preserve diminishing prairie lands; learn more at

Below, watch a simple video of wind blowing through the prairie.