Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Snow White and me

Six years ago, we built our two-story house on acreage here in Hays County. We were curious what our view would be from upstairs, and sent our middle son shinnying up a tree to give us a report. He couldn’t see much but tree branches.

When the house was framed, we climbed a ladder to the second floor to take in that view. Gazing in all directions through the window openings, we were astonished. We discovered that we were above the treetops, and could see miles of trees all around – and not a single rooftop or sign of civilization.

View northeast from an upstairs window.

We were thrilled. We had all the privacy we had yearned for. We could almost pretend we were alone in the wilderness. The trees sheltered us, enclosed us, even embraced us. We painted our house green, and finished it with cedar posts and limestone rocks, all so we would nestle in as part of this environment. We gladly settled into our Hill Country haven.

But over Labor Day weekend, when multiple fires ignited all over Central Texas, suddenly our woods did not look so welcoming. As I scanned for fire with my binoculars from those upstairs windows, the thrashing trees seem to be pulsing with a different sort of energy – a malevolent sort.

Remember Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, when Snow White stumbles through the woods at night, terrified as tree branches reach for her, waving about threateningly? Her lovely natural world (singing birds, dancing bunnies, lovely flowers) had turned against her.

I was Snow White for those few days, as the wind gusted, smoke filled the air, and images of our Central Texas neighbors’ incinerated homes filled the newscasts.

This is the view from my back doorstep. Brush line is about 30 feet away.
Since the fires, I have spent some time watching forest service videos and reading news releases. I want our house to be one that survives a wildfire. We have a good start, with a tin roof and cement siding. But more can be done.

I have decided to take action on something we have known for awhile: the brushy woods are too close to our home. For the last week, I have been venturing forth, wielding my loppers to thin the underbrush and raise the canopy on the perimeter of our cleared yard. Sunday I even revved up my very own chainsaw. (If you could see my skinny arms, you would fully grasp the alarming nature of this statement.)

The big Ashe juniper on the right is at the edge of our cleared yard.
These wispy tree-lings will be gone soon!
This work will improve our “defensible space,” as the firefighters term the area around a home.  I feel a bit like a homesteader, improving my land. It is a good way to reconnect with the land and trees.

As it did for Snow White, my natural world has returned to its friendly, nurturing state. I’m still waiting for the dancing bunnies to appear, however.

Favorite spot in the garden:

Texas lantana! Give it a bit of rain, some cooler nights, and off it goes! This is Lantana urticoides, a.k.a. L. horrida.  According to the Wildflower Research Center website, another common name for it is "calico bush," though I've not heard that name used.

When it was the only thing blooming in my garden during our last dry summer (2009), I added another. I really think it should be plunked down all over my place.


  1. What a great way to illustrate how we feel. As if the land may turn against us. I, too, have been nervously watching for fires, but I've let my guard down since we got that rain. Probably not a good thing to do. Cleaning out the brush is a great thing to do! Your house sounds very smartly built.

  2. Sounds like you're doing the wise thing. Just be careful with that chain saw. Not sure I'd have the nerve to use one.
    It has seemed lately that the main reason we all moved to wooded areas, has become a reason it's so dangerous.
    Stay safe...

  3. @HG - well, you can only stay on full alert for so long! I'm sure if there's a fire coming our way we'll all figure it out pretty quickly.

    @Linda - I'm not sure I have the nerve either. Using it is not so bad, it's thinking about how badly wrong it could go . . . that's when I get nervous. My husband actually broke skin with his chainsaw this weekend - yikes.

  4. Hi Cynthia-- yes I'm sure it's a good idea to clear around your house, and it sounds like you have a healthy respect for the chainsaw. (My Mr O had a terrible accident with one of those once after years of exeperience so be dang careful.) I wish the weather weren't broken... And I hope the dancing bunnies show up very soon!!

  5. I agree, you are doing the prudent thing, but like Linnie said be very careful. One of our experienced workers lost digits with one.

  6. Wouldn't it be nice if I could share some of our heavy rain and bunnies with you and trade some wet flowers for a little sunshine. We would all be happier with more moderate weather conditions, but we get what we get.

  7. Sometimes you need a wake up call. I am glad you didn't experience the destruction of a fire but who knows where it will be next time. You are very wise to cut back and remove dead brush. Our lot is full of burnt out tree stumps from a fire that raged across here in 1950s. It was a similar time to this with extended drought. We also have a metal roof and stucco but I understand the biggest danger comes from the fire getting up under the eaves. We also made some prep. in getting together all the important stuff in a fire proof box. At least we could save ourselves the problem of that.
    I also have some fine native lantana growing and flowering but I think water seeps down through the wall from the upper garden.

  8. @linniew - Truly, I am terrified by this implement. But it seems to be the best way to get the things I want cut taken care of. Busy husband!

    @GWGT - I will be!

    @Becky - you are exactly right, we get what we get. I'm just really glad I'm not a farmer!

    @LR - All of us in this area should be prepared -who knows when this drought will end.

  9. Mom was in a panic all, like, year after she thought about all this.