Dallas lawman talks 'walking'

Bill Holston is a Dallas human rights lawyer who pens a column for D Magazine called "Law Man Walking." Photo courtesy of Bill Holston.

Aug. 5, 2020

North Texas Wild logoSometimes your direction in life is what comes across your desk or crosses your path. Bill Holston is well known in North Texas as the lawyer who serves as executive director for Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. The nonprofit agency provides legal services and assists with social services for asylum seekers, abused and victimized immigrants and victims of human trafficking. He leads a team of 15 staff members aided by over 300 volunteers.

An outspoken advocate for the oppressed, Holston has written extensively and recorded radio commentaries on recent border issues, women’s rights, racial unrest, persecution faced by religious minorities overseas and the myriad of ways those wielding power dismiss the human worth of women and minorities. 

But nature is his other passion.

Bill Holston walkingBill Holston walking. Photo courtesy of Richard Grayson.

An avid hiker, Holston heard about naturalist-guided walks in the Great Trinity Forest on the Buckeye Trail. That spurred him to delve more deeply into nature, becoming a North Texas Master Naturalist in 2011. Today, he pens a column for D magazine called Law Man Walking. His Facebook feed is full of narrated videos from his morning walks in nature. 

Green Source DFW writer Amy Martin met with Holston at the Warren Angus Ferris Cemetery, east of White Rock Lake. After ambling the grounds, a shady enclave being transformed into a prairie patch and pollinator garden, the two settled in for a fascinating conversation. 

GREEN SOURCE DFW: What were your earliest experiences in nature growing up in Alabama? Was it something that brought you great peace? 

BILL HOLSTON: I'm not sure I’d put it that way. I wasn't a very deep kid. [laughs] It was more like it was just fun. I enjoyed being in nature because you could go swimming in creeks, chop on trees, cook over open fires. I enjoyed all of that. It was not until I was an adult that I started finding a sense of conscious tranquility in nature. 

GREEN SOURCE DFW: You reached Eagle Scout, right? Was that your first naturalist inklings? 

BILL HOLSTON: Oh, sure, yeah. It may be different now from back then, and certainly it depends on the Scout leader, but I don't think I learned very much about plants, animals, things like that. Maybe a bit of tree ID for different merit badges. So really in terms of diving into like a detailed knowledge of nature, that didn't really happen until just before I did the Master Naturalist training. And that's one of the things that drove me to be a Master Naturalist was because I was out in nature a lot, but not very knowledgeable.  

GREEN SOURCE DFW: So how does your work as a lawyer connect with your passion for nature? I know that you've said that it's a restorative thing and you spend Sundays in solitude. But are there correlations between the two - like embracing diversity in people vs. embracing the diversity of nature? 

BILL HOLSTON: I don't think of it that way. I mean I can see the logic of what you're saying. Makes sense, but that's not really what draws me to it. For me, the main attraction to nature is being drawn to solitude and a space to have contemplation and reflection. 

GREEN SOURCE DFW: So if you could describe a peak experience in nature it would be more one of intimacy. 

BILL HOLSTON: Yeah, absolutely. 

Bill HolstonBill Holston birdwatching. Photo by Richard Grayson.

GREEN SOURCE DFW: Was there a particular moment that you can think of recently where everything just came together? 

BILL HOLSTON: Well, this morning was as clear of an example of it as I know. I got to the Trinity Forest Trail parking lot near the Trinity River Audubon Center a little before six and the sun was coming up and mist was hanging on the ground. I could see Jupiter and Saturn lined up and Venus was really clear. It was just beautiful and it draws me to prayer, a prayer of gratitude for how beautiful it all is. I saw a couple male painted buntings, blue grosbeak, which is fun.  Then I got to the bridge and there was a little indigo bunting just sitting there on the rail of the bridge. All of that together is almost a perfect experience.

GREEN SOURCE DFW: Do you do anything to get yourself in a mind frame before you go hiking?  

BILL HOLSTON: My daily ritual is to keep in my daypack Psalms and a journal and a book of poetry. Every day I start by reciting the Shema Yisrael, which is a Jewish prayer. And then I read a psalm, and then I write in my journal. I do that every single time. And then on Sundays I add to that a poem. The reason I do the poem just once a week is that I kind of savor it. I read a single poem and reflect about it. I was drawn to that because I read some Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk, and he suggested reading poetry as a spiritual practice because it's not very direct, you have to really think about it.

GREEN SOURCE DFW: You have to be very open minded and observant of the spaces in the poem.

BILL HOLSTON: Right. That’s pretty recent for me, I started when somebody gave me a book of Mary Oliver poems; those were awesome. Somebody gave me a really nice Rumi collection, I've been reading some of those, and then recently bought a book of Wendell Berry poetry. That's it. I don't think I really have a centering practice before I start. It's more just being open to the things you see. And I think being a naturalist helps, having a bit of knowledge. 

GREEN SOURCE DFW: I think it makes you more observant, because you're looking for the details, the differences.

BILL HOLSTON: I think that's really true.

GREEN SOURCE DFW: Would you say that's the best thing that you got out of your naturalist training was a sense of observation?

BILL HOLSTON: Oh, yeah, totally. I love the fact that can I say, “Oh, those are chinquapins, that's a beautyberry, that's a red oak, and this is why they grow here.” I wouldn't have observed any of that before. When I did the Buckeye hike so long ago with Jim Floyd, I was like, “I want to learn this stuff.” And then Jim Varnum, we did a couple hikes. I quote him all the time when I lead hikes. I'm like, “Yeah, this is all overwhelming, but like Jim Varnum said, ‘Learn one thing’.”

Bill Holston and friends in Big BendBill Holston, right, and friends at Big Bend National Park. Courtesy of Bill Holston.

GREEN SOURCE DFW: Do you ever think about a connection between the inherent rights of nature and the inherent rights of humans?

BILL HOLSTON: For me, the connection is more about respecting living things. I’m going to be doing a sermon on solitude at the Unitarian church up in Plano and they gave me this selection of readings on Buddhism and nature. It was really beautiful. One really great quote was like, “God is not the tree, but you see God in the tree.” That really resonated with me. I guess it's more like the whole life includes human beings and animals and trees and insects and water and the all of it, the oneness of it all. I think of it more as like being respectful and preserving it because it has a lot of value. Because when it's gone, it’s gone.

GREEN SOURCE DFW: I think there's something about nature that also kind of helps open your heart.

BILL HOLSTON: You're asking me these questions and I realize I'm not very deep in my thinking about nature. It's more like a place of a place of peace and contemplation for me. But I do have deep thoughts when I'm there. I think it might be because my life outside of my life is so stressful and heavy. Having a place to separate from all that, to have just quiet, it's not just helpful, it's essential.

GREEN SOURCE DFW: Do you think you're ever going to retire? 

BILL HOLSTON: Oh, no. I think there will be a point in time where I don't think I should be the executive director of HRI, particularly as a white man. It should be led by a person of color, probably a woman. That's something I'm thinking a lot about right now, how to how to facilitate that. But I have no desire to not work. 

GREEN SOURCE DFW: Do you have a bucket list of places you just would like to go? 

BILL HOLSTON: Not really, no.

GREEN SOURCE DFW: Or a cabin you'd like to maybe get out of the city and live for a while. 

BILL HOLSTON: Yeah, that's not my dream. My dream is to do what I'm doing till I die.

GREEN SOURCE DFW: So when you do die eventually, decades from now, what do you think's the funniest thing someone's going to say at your funeral? 

BILL HOLSTON: Well, I'm picturing my wife standing up there being truthful and she would say, “Bill was the worst driver I ever knew, like lane dividers were just suggestions.” Or that I had the messiest handwriting, most illegible handwriting, of anybody that she knew. And she teaches children.  

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