The dawn is quiet with a low film of red on the horizon where the sun is new. A gentle breeze brings with it the smell of early morning. Melissa Cole sits on her deck observing the spring-fed lake which slowly filters into Big Sandy Creek on its way to the Colorado River. Two beavers work feverishly to improve their lodge, their slick fur shimmering like diamonds in the sun. She loves this land where she grew up. She appreciates it every day, rain or shine—it’s been in the Cole family since 1950.
Although Melissa prizes her privacy, today she is on tap to orchestrate a Texas Master Naturalist field trip—the subject: Land Stewardship. The venue: Cole Ranch (Spring Branch), her own 427-acre love affair with nature, just outside of Elgin, Texas.
Master Naturalist trainees have scant time to absorb a broad body of knowledge. In the rush for insight, there are bound to be some hits and misses. The trainees are eager, the ranch is breathtaking, the effort to conserve and protect is impressive. There are fertile lessons here: many attempts to do it right . . . some wrong turns along the way. Three hours touring this property will be a hit with the naturalist trainees. It may not, however, be enough to understand the underlying artistry.
Amidst exotic artifacts collected from worldwide adventures, the aspiring naturalists are invited into a bold, expansive and airy home to learn about methods of nourishing the land. Like many working ranches, this one suffered from over-grazing, erosion and encroachment by invasive plants. Melissa and her late husband Mike spared no effort to convert the property into a healthy natural space, attracting a thriving wildlife population not seen on the property for 30 years.
Melissa knows that listening to the land is instinctual and natural—if one cares enough. It’s an emotional thing, not unlike appreciating fine art. Knowing how to turn things around, however, takes reading, learning, observing and recording—experimentation with technique, the application of science. We’re talking an entire table top covered in books (some of which are from her childhood), a camera and a legacy of meticulously maintained journals.
In 2007 the couple received the Texas Land Steward Award (Post Oak Savanah) from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, a recognition but which few merit and an honor but which few achieve. The award celebrates the best private land conservation efforts in the state of Texas, by ecoregion.
Melissa’s presentation soon slides into a lively discussion: the virtues of using barn owls for gopher control, intensive cultivation of the bluebird population, wetland restoration and improvement, opening up as a raptor and wildlife release site, planting native trees and shrubs and much, much more. It quickly becomes obvious, at the Cole Ranch at least, that restoration of natural habitat is an act of passion. So is sharing knowledge.
As the morning sun delivers another beautiful spring day in Texas, the students climb into a waiting group of all-terrain vehicles for the long-awaited property tour. Melissa pilots the lead vehicle.
We bump and lurch along the trail in single file, like a compliant brace of ducklings. We pass mottes of mixed hardwoods and pines and cedars, silhouetted against the brilliant blue of a balmy day. We stop to discuss and observe experiments in controlling invasive plants, ponder the conservation value of man-made brush piles and snags.
A key message: “What works someplace else may not work on your land. You have to keep trying new things, you have to decide what you are willing to accept and what you are not.”
Atop a breezy hillside, the caravan stops to gather the broad view of a landscape very much in harmony with its surroundings. But it’s an exposition of paradox. We see a tree lined riparian section of land enriched by the lake—yet it coexists with yaupon and greenbrier. There is a lush expanse of exotic pastureland punctuated by wildflowers—but it’s also a failed native grass experiment. Cedar and prickly pear thrive alongside the oaks. Yes, there is tension and there is competition—yet there also is naturalness, a sense of community.
Throughout the morning, we perceive a gentle appreciation for all nature in our hostess. She embraces wild honey bees, feral hogs, coyotes and other “pests.” Melissa explains, “While my birder friends detest the cowbird, I find them brilliant adapters. The Ogden Nash poem comes to mind: ‘The Lord in his wisdom created the fly, and then forgot to tell us why.’ Though I can do things to benefit the flora and fauna, I don’t feel I should orchestrate. Peaceful coexistence is definitely my goal.”
The procession continues in jolts and jerks along wispy stands of little bluestem waving between groves of trees, shadows giving them the density of monuments. Yep, this is the Post Oak Savanah all right! Eventually we come to the outer perimeter of the lake. Everyone disembarks and slips into the surrounding oaks and pines. After some distance we come upon a series of barricade-like fortifications built of cedar logs. These curious works are designed to stop silt and allow natural drainage into the riparian portions of her property.
Melissa explains that these ramparts were inspired by watching her resident beaver family. “I have seen them working for hours on end. Especially when my dam gave way twice in 2015. I actually fed branches to them to help staunch the water flow out of the lake. And when I try to come up with a solution for erosion control, I look to their structures for ideas.”
There is know-how, craft and engineering involved in restoration of wild spaces, no doubt. I believe that everyone got that part. But it’s the art of caring which provides the magic. That land is to be loved and respected is not a new idea, but when someone cares unconditionally it expands how we see the world. Rich mental protein for naturalist trainees!
Melissa Cole is found most days outside working on her property . . . because she cares enough to do it.