Reading the Landscape

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By Jake Landers
Published September 2011

Jake Landers Last spring this landscape along Hwy 83 in Menard County showed severe grazing by cattle and goats. If only cattle, the cedar in the background would not have been hedged. You would think that I would have something better to do than to drive along the Texas highways looking at the scenery.  The problem is, I must get from one place to another for various reasons, and the scenery is there whether or not I look at it.  I seldom purposely drive to look at the scenery as I might more often do in the Colorado Rockies or along the Pacific seashore, but I do enjoy seeing the  Texas countryside even if I’ve seen it many times before.

Observing and trying to understand what you see out the window while you drive is what I call “Reading the Landscape”.  Multiple questions arise as the patterns change from cultivated fields of cotton and milo to pastures dominated by Mesquite.  Why is the land cultivated here and not there?  It must be the soil.  Why is this landowner just now converting Mesquite pasture to cultivation by root plowing, stacking and burning the Mesquite and other brush?  Good question, but it can’t be answered from the highway.   Why is Pricklypear cactus so abundant here and not there?  And on it goes.

Oak Wilt progressing through a thicket of Spanish Oak, the left photo with one tree still healthy, and the right photo four months later with the tree dead.
Four months have passed from time at left and the tree is dead.  Vigorous Little bluestem in roadside as well in pasture suggests that the pasture has been lightly grazed in recent years.

Keeping your mind occupied with quick glances to the side is not a distraction to driving along most of our open highways.  It helps keep you alert.  I could say that the three drivers who crashed into my new fence on Hwy 83 in Menard County since 2004 could have benefited from reading the landscape, only the wrecks occurred at night.  At least reading the landscape in daylight helps keep you alert.

Driving along the Menard to London road in central Texas at Thanksgiving time, how would you “Read this Landscape?”  Is there evidence of prescribed burning, bulldozing, spraying?  How intensive was recent grazing by livestock?  Longterm?  What type of livestock? Think about it, and I will give you my reading next montht. My grandchildren live in Iowa so I don’t have them along often to read the landscape with me.  Instead, I have my helpers from San Angelo who ride with me to the ranch and orchard, and the more they know about what they are seeing the more quickly the time passes that we are on the road.  An hour of boredom can seem a long time.  Question: How do you explain why the Mesquite trees along the highway fence are a little taller than the ones in the pasture?  Answer: Their roots extend out into the roadside and they get a little more water.  Question:  Why is the grass so much taller in the roadside than in the pasture?  Answer:  The lack of livestock grazing, primarily.

I have shown some examples of reading the landscape with my explanations of what I am seeing.  The last photo is one that I will ask you to read.  How would you explain what you are seeing to a grandchild in Junior High School?  If he or she is plugged in to a gadget and not in communication with you, you might try your spouse.  I’ll give you my explanation next month.

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