During the pandemic, prairie restoration began at a plot known as McWhorter Creek South at Lake Lewisville Environmental Learning Area. Courtesy of Michael D. Fox.
May 6, 2021
Heading west on Highway 121 into Lewisville, there is a patch of land to the right where the tollway ends. At 50 mph it comes into view for five seconds, and then it is gone. No matter, you won’t see it because it is invisible. You won’t see it because you are listening to the radio and thinking about getting home and cooking dinner while you keep five car-lengths between you and the truck in front of you.
Even if you look to your right at the precise moment, you still won’t see it. I speak with some authority because I always use 121 to travel into Lewisville and I had never seen it. There’s nothing there – yet.
This 80-acre plot of land is the southeastern tip of Lake Lewisville Environmental Learning Area. Although about 50 football fields in scope, it is blank land that was probably over-grazed a long time ago, then left fallow for decades after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took it along with the rest of the 2,600 acres of land under the dam-to-be. It is surrounded by shrubland, dense with the same opportunistic species that have captured the most of the floodplain since the dam was started 70 years ago.
Perhaps the rancher who owned this particular tract was given a pass on eminent domain for a few score years after the dam was completed. Maybe it was a farmer who kept the encroachment at bay. The historical records of the area lack entire chapters, blank spaces that incite the imagination, much like the land itself. Whatever the reason, the field was protected from the mesquite and honey locust that invaded much of the land at LLELA.
Richard Freiheit is the restoration manager at LLELA. Courtesy of Tim Trosper.
Richard Freiheit is the restoration manager at LLELA. My boss. His white hair belies his demeanor. This is a rough and tumble kind of guy with a broad grin, deep laugh and shoulders thickened by years of chain-sawing. I spend at least two mornings with this fellow every week. The day often begins with Richard hustling to get equipment ready as the volunteers listen to the plan. The instructions given at a rapid pace with a Texas drawl through a mask makes me lean in a little more closely.
Richard wears several other hats these days as the pandemic and resulting loss of funding has cut the LLELA staff to the quick. COVID trimmed our volunteer effort down to a skeleton crew of Texas Master Naturalists and Gardeners, UNT ecology students, and a few other dedicated volunteers. This perfect storm would not be complete without the Corps of Engineers being fully engaged in a six-year, $150-million project to reinforce the dam. We found ourselves with minimal agency, and limited access to half of the property.
Like so many twists and turns in 2020, the pandemic drove us into a corner. In 2019, we added 10,000 native plants to the property. In 2020, we had many a root-bound plant waiting in an overstocked greenhouse.
Richard is among the most creative people I have ever met in terms of seeing possibilities among the obstacles. I tend to concentrate on showing up on time and remembering to fasten down my hearing aids so I don’t lose one to the prairie. It has happened. But Richard is constantly looking at the whole picture, and the corner of the property we named McWhorter Creek South came into sharp focus last year.
Here was a canvas, a cleared section of land that might be turned into something else with small groups of masked workers.
Indian Grass seeds are collected by a LLELA volunteer. Courtesy of Tim Trosper.
First, we would need “seed” money, and not the type of cash that entrepreneurs request for a start-up. Literally, we needed seed and lots of it, about $6,000 dollars’ worth. When asked, “What keeps you up at night?” Richard doesn’t blink when he answers, “Funding.”
LELLA is a bit of an anomaly in terms of public parks. The land is owned by the Corps, but supported by the City of Lewisville and the University of North Texas. In short, there was no ready budget nor grant for creative pandemic projects. We needed a sponsor.
Enter the community, the largely silent collective of people who understand the value of a natural treasure in their backyard.
LELLA is so much more than a “greenspace” to the teachers, students, researchers, photographers, hikers, kayakers, birders, naturalists and the nature lover who don’t need to know the names of the trees to relish the cool shade and the birdsong that interrupts the quiet of a long summer walk.
This group has representation, and agency through the Friends of LLELA, our small but mighty cadre of fundraisers who fill in the financial gaps. Last Fall, Richard rallied the troops during North Texas Giving Day. It seemed like everyone jumped into the boat and donated, or created fundraising pages, or leaned, as I did, on friends and family to help. We got the seeds, but that was just a beginning as the canvas needed to be prepared.
PREPARING THE LAND
In November, Richard mowed the edges of the plot to create the firebreaks that outline every controlled burn. The 12-foot swath looked like A good, restrictive edge, but it was still loaded with a mass of mown grass, otherwise known as “fuel.” It had to be moved onto the side that will burn. It might be doable with a crew of ten steadily raking for an entire day who don’t mind sore arms and blisters. Or…
Hay rake, circa 1920. Note Richard Freiheit is using some vice grips to fill in for a missing part that can't be ordered online. No tires? No problem. I have raked fire breaks by hand and this is way easier. No blisters. Courtesy of Tim Trosper.
The next day, Richard and I drove out to an area just under the dam to fetch a large piece of equipment that looked like it really should belong in a Smithsonian museum for agriculture. I had passed this rusty contraption many times and thought it was a piece abandoned farm history that needed to be dissembled and removed.
Half-buried in tall grass, the thin tires were long gone from the empty rims. Richard informed that this was a “hay rake.” And here I thought we were looking for some long-handled pitch-forks.
We maneuvered the UTV in front of this thing, hitched it up and started rolling it on the bare rims. The clatter and vibration when we hit the gravel road was loud enough for Richard to wonder whether we could fashion some tires out of repurposed utility tubing. I rolled my eyes, fully expecting the whole assembly to fly apart. But it held and when we arrived, I took a closer look at the rims. They were undaunted and undented. I guess they used a different kind of steel for tire rims back in the day.
Richard made ready for the raking by moving several levers, one of which had to be locked down with a pair of vice grips. It was all a big mystery to me. This kind of thing happens all the time to this city boy learning about field work. So much of the time I just try to pay attention, respond to direct commands, and try to not get hurt.
Here, I just stepped aside and took a quick video of this decrepit machine whipping the grass into a spinning tube and spitting it out in large clumps to the side – completing 40 human-hours of work in one quick trip around the block. Amazing. Shame on me for doubting and using words like “decrepit.”
Burn day at LLELA in November. Courtesy of Tim Trosper.
After many hours of coordination with the city, multiple fire departments and a dozen volunteers, we gathered on Nov. 12 for a controlled burn. The human-caused fire takes the place of natural ones, which clear the land of shrub, stalks and trees, which can choke out seedlings.
Our fire was held on a day when the humidity was right and the wind blew from the south. The wind direction was a requirement as smoke blowing across a busy highway simply won’t do. In fact, we had a hard deadline of 3 p.m. to complete the burn to avoid the predictable jam of rubbernecking drivers during rush hour traffic.
It happened anyway. A burning field cannot be ignored. Vehicles were slowing down as soon as we lit the head fire. But there were no collisions and in a very short time, many years of dead grass and organic detritus were reduced into black ash.
We were ready for the seed. Almost.
SCRATCHING THE SURFACE
When rain is scarce, much of the surface of LLELA’s Blackland prairie is nearly impenetrable. You can jump on a sharp-edged shovel and pierce it, but you won’t be able to lever up the soil without breaking the handle. To better fix the distribution of seed in place, veteran volunteer Vin Merrill dragged a harrow over the surface to “rough it up.” Yet another contraption that cannot be understood until seen in use.
This is an array of heavy chain and iron fingers that literally “scratch the surface.” This creates some texture to hold the seed in place against the scattering wind and pooling rain that wants to assemble it all back together.
Richard Freiheit harvests basket flower seeds in 2019. Courtesy of Tim Trosper.
We had 8, 50-pound bags of expensive (about the same price per pound as beef tenderloin) native seed that was ready, but we also had another 150 pounds of seed that we had harvested at various times from the property. Indian grass, prairie clover, basket flower and so many others in sacks, bags, and jars hoarded away in Richard’s “seed pantry.”
Except for the stock held back for the greenhouse, all of this went into the mix, roughly 100 species of forbs and grasses.
Richard, Vin, and I met up with extra-good masks. Richard figured out how to get all of it combined and put into the large recycle bins that we would haul out to the field.
We dumped, mixed, divided each bag of seed and eight containers are eventually filled and ready for distribution. My eyes felt like I had been in a sand storm.
The final step was perhaps the most difficult. The seed needing “urging” to flow onto the spinner. Bouncing around for a few hours bent over this metal box is not the most pleasant way to spend a day. Courtesy of Tim Trosper.
With the seed mixed and the land prepped, we were ready to sow. We have a seed-broadcasting device that attaches to the trailer-hitch on the UTV. It is basically a metal box that funnels through a chute onto a spinner that throws the seed out behind the UTV.
What I came to understand is that our particular mix of seeds needed a lot of “urging” to flow through 2-inch rectangular opening at the bottom of the bin. Specifically, it needed a human hand constantly stirring up the mixture at the outlet. Absent this, you are just driving around because the second you remove your arm, the flow stops. The bracing is not for the container per se, it’s for a human body bent over the container with an arm stuck deep into the bin while the UTV bounces over the terrain at 5 mph.
So in January, I was kneeling in the bed of the UTV with my body hunched over a deep bin full of fluffy seeds. Vin did his best to provide a smooth ride, but, when your body is draped across a sharp-edged metal box as the UTV bounces around a field for a couple of hours, there will be a price. The next day I felt like I had been punched repeatedly in the armpits by a prize fighter. I would rather deliver flowers. Growing them is too hard on axillary soft tissues.
Coleen and I scattered the "last bag" of miscellaneous seeds by hand. And now, we wait.
So now we wait. In a world where desire is slaked in a “one-click” moment on a smart phone, restoration has a pace that teaches patience and prompts weekly conversations about weather. It is not idle talk. We had two inches of slow, satisfying rain after the seeding. The snow and hard freeze in February might have hurt, but maybe it helped?
Some seeds need to be “scarified” into germination by cold, or heat, or even digestive acid. I cringed at the mourning doves that pecked apart our work like sea gulls feasting around a fishing boat. I thought about shooing them away. A silly notion, especially from a master naturalist who forgets about the nearly perfect economy of nature, the birds and other animals in the department of transportation who take their pay up front.
Sometimes the best way to wait for something is to, well … don’t. So, while the seeds and the birds and the weather do what they do as Spring unfolds, there’s plenty to do in the surrounding area. In a way, this project is just a starting point for larger dreams.
FIELD OF DREAMS
A short hike from this prairie-to-be is Lewisville Independent School District Outdoor Learning Center (LISDOLA), where 5th-graders go to learn about their non-digital world. The Lewisville citizenry voted to upgrade this center and work is nearly complete on a new building, adding four classrooms and a tornado shelter.
Every year more than ten thousand kids get their hands dirty at this place. It’s an interactive maze of games, gardens, exhibits and exposure to ecosystem conservation. Hiking paths are all around, and a gazillion picnic tables are shuffled around to feed a gaggle of hungry grade schoolers. Maybe a native prairie hike can be added to the curriculum? The thought of 12-year-old kids chasing butterflies around tall flowers makes me smile.
There are many other ideas. A bridge over McWhorter creek would connect to the north section where we have been clearing brush for the last months, rendering two prairies with multiple trails. A prairie dog colony has been mentioned. Perhaps this plot of land will draw attention and ignite the will to build public access. Like expecting parents, we dream of our children and what they might become.
McWhorter Prairie on a recent visit looking northeast from Highway 121. Photo by Tim Trosper.
Fifty-four years ago, I started my working life delivering flowers, one of the best jobs I ever had. I hauled them into the shop from the wholesale trucks, the florists arranged them, I drove them to doorsteps, and handed them to happy people. I had no thoughts about whence the flowers, the field where they grew, or the greenhouse where workers hovered over seedlings and adjusted irrigation systems. As a point in fact, I could not name half of the flowers I walked up to the doorsteps. It was not a requirement.
There’s a progression in our relationship to nature. First, there is exposure, a simple act of discovery. I took my first walk through a prairie three years ago. The next step is understanding. I have learned that a prairie is one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, a home for hundreds of plants and thousands of animals. It is a carbon-capturing machine with root systems that can withstand drought, flood and depend on cleansing fires for renewal.
Exposed to the value, complexity, and sheer beauty of this rare and endangered habitat, I fell in love with it. It isn’t very scientific, and it isn’t mentioned in the guidebook for interpretation, but that is what happened. The final step is a fait accompli; when you love something, you take care of it.
So I find myself, once again, delivering flowers. The work is much harder and the customers must come to me. I see them so clearly. Someday this spring, or some spring in a longer future, a couple of people are driving into Lewisville on Highway 121. A man is driving, paying attention to brake lights and wondering why the slowdown. His wife sits beside him, her thoughts about dinner interrupted by the tug of her seat belt as the car slows. She looks to her right and says, “Oh, look at all those flowers!”
I won’t be there. I might not even be alive. But on behalf of all my family and friends who donated to the fundraiser for the project, UNT students, corporate-sponsored office workers, Boy Scouts, Master Naturalists and Gardeners, all of the volunteers who show up and do what needs to be done – on behalf of all of these, I would like to say to that woman, “You are very welcome, ma’am.”
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