Photo by Emily Moskal
Photo by Emily Moskal
Travel: Born on the Bayou
Katy native returns home to discover Houston’s natural comeback.
Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine, to be published December 2016
It’s too easy to take home for granted, especially when you have no other experience for perspective. Growing up, I played into the limiting belief that Houston didn’t have nature. Nature was something you found out in the country, not in the midst of what I viewed only as urban sprawl.
When I finished college, I headed straight out of Texas. But after two years in California, I returned home to the arms of my dying grandpa, who reminded me, “There’s no place like home.”
So, this fall I’m returning to make amends with Houston and the “Mother Bayou” — Buffalo Bayou, the waterway that runs through downtown and the heart of Houston’s history — and to find remnants of the returning prairie.
Katy Prairie Conservancy
While I was in elementary school, one of the largest malls in Texas was constructed in Katy, my hometown inside the greater Houston area. Katy Mills Mall covered 542 acres, land that also happened to be one of largest remaining prairie fragments in West Houston. By the time I left for college, Katy had become one of the most rapidly developing areas of Houston, but on the sidelines, folks concerned about the loss of the prairie became energized to act.
As I drive down FM 362, my car flushes waves of doves. I angle right onto Hebert Road, where big-rig Fords line the road for the start of the dove season, and into Indiangrass Preserve, where Allen Brymer, the conservation stewardship project manager of Katy Prairie Conservancy, meets me.
“Katy Prairie used to be vast, at least a million acres. It went from Interstate 610 all the way past here,” Allen tells me. “The tallgrass coastal prairie in general went from roughly Lafayette, La., past Corpus Christi, and then 50 miles inward.”
Today, less than 1 percent remains.
The Katy Prairie is a coastal tallgrass prairie known for its soil fertility, flood control and aquifer recharge services that, paired together with the waterways of Houston, helped create a buffer zone for rising waters and a means to drain flash floods. In days long ago, pronghorn antelope, red wolves, black bears, cougars and bison roamed here.
Today, because of rice field flooding, the Katy Prairie is home to one of the densest concentrations of waterfowl on the North American continent, particularly snow geese. The mission of the Katy Prairie Conservancy is to protect a substantial portion of the Katy Prairie — and the geese, ducks, cranes, egrets and ibises that call it home — through cooperation between landowners, developers, residents, hunters and other outdoor recreationalists.
Whenever the conservancy learns of pending development on the prairie, it dispatches a trained specialist — a prairie plant expert — to locate prairie remnants. Scooped up in big bites into a bulldozer, the remnant plants travel across Houston for relocation into a safe “pocket” where they can spread out roots and grow. The pockets are then maintained, seeds collected and plants nursed. Houston’s flood control districts and transportation department are now participating with their own greenhouses and pockets to help preserve this habitat and its flora.
Through the efforts of this network of allies around town, a patchwork of prairies has sprung up to try to balance the urban growth. In the Katy area alone, a total of 13 preserves and 23,000 acres of prairie now thrive, and grassy belts along the bayous provide some relief for Houston’s notorious flooding problems. Many pockets are open to the public for scheduled tours, including Indiangrass Preserve.
As I crunch along the granite path on my way out, thunderheads break and sunshine bursts through to the inundated wetland sandbars below, where cattle slowly bob their heads and graze and cattle egrets swish their beaks in the shallows. My mind wanders to thoughts about the mighty Nile River and its role in the beginning of civilization. Houston’s beginnings are directly tied to Buffalo Bayou, which has its source right here in the Katy Prairie; ultimately, Houston’s future may lie here, too.
San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site
Approximately 50 miles east of Katy, I visit a prairie where Texas won independence at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site. In the middle of the site stands the monument, the tallest masonry structure in the world, commemorating a 180-year-old battle of mythic proportions.
On the bottom floor of the monument, my dad and I browse nearly 5,000 artifacts lining the exhibit walls, representing more than 400 years of Texas history. The spoils of war lie behind glass, including Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna’s abandoned signed glove and tent spike.
Back out on the battleground, we head northeast to the Marsh Trail following the San Jacinto River. Within minutes, we find the marker describing the advance of Col. Sidney Sherman’s 2nd Infantry Regiment into the battle on April 21, 1836.
Transported through time, I could almost feel the movement of the men through the breeze-blown grass, almost hear their footsteps and labored breathing.
Sherman’s regiment made the first move. Crouching like lions in the high grass, rifles swooshing to the beat of the breeze, the left wing of the Republic of Texas army advanced, hidden and protected by the wooded prairie along the San Jacinto River. As the cover broke, Sherman’s regiment rushed first into battle, crying, “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” Mexican troops, groggy from their midday siesta, were trapped and forced to surrender in the quicksand of Boggy Bayou. A mere 18 minutes later, the battle ended, and the next day, Santa Anna was captured.
Today, you can study the battlefield game plan mapped onto the complexity of the prairie’s habitats inside the museum and then go find the markers across the 1,200-acre park, where the Texans’ knowledge of the land helped them win the battle. You can see the battle re-enacted on the grounds every year in April.
My dad and I continue our way down the Marsh Trail wooden boardwalk. In 1836, the same year as the Battle of San Jacinto, James Audubon was painting birds, including a roseate spoonbill during a time when they were nearly hunted to extinction. Today, where the marsh boardwalk meets Sherman’s oak trees, a large snag tree is filled with shrimp-colored spoonbills. Threatened reddish egrets and playful river otters can be seen nearby, as well as dam-important beavers.
A new type of battle is taking place here. Big bluestems, little bluestems, little barley, indiangrass, sideoats and switchgrass are increasing in numbers and fighting back against nonnative forces; the battleground is returning year by year to the complex prairie system it was in 1836.
We drive from the monument to land’s end on Independence Parkway. A local favorite, Monument Inn is a restaurant that’s been around since 1974; it’s where my dad’s cousin and brothers had birthday dinners for years. My dad and I eat our fried catfish and seafood platters, reminiscing about childhood crabbing in the early summer morning hours. We watch cars drive out to the two ferries that replaced the 1830s hand-pulled boat that helped civilians flee the battle and blocked Mexican reinforcements.
Buffalo Bayou Greenway
Mom accompanies me as we follow Buffalo Bayou upstream 25 miles west from the San Jacinto battlegrounds through the Ship Channel into the heart of downtown, stepping out onto the land where Houston was founded four months after the Battle of San Jacinto.
For decades, Allen’s Landing — Houston’s Plymouth Rock — served as a port hub for ships and exports, fueling the pre-oil economy, including Sidney Sherman’s post-war Texas Cotton and Woolen Manufacturing Company. Today, the newly renovated dock is a stop on the Spirit of the Bayou’s Looking Back Boat Tour and the eastern take-out of the 26-mile Buffalo Bayou Paddling Trail.
A mile west we find Sam Houston Park, an anachronistic bubble within a bustling city. This 20-acre Victorian-style village connects nine historic houses by garden footpaths and captures more than 80 years of Houston lifestyles — from the 1823 frontier log cabin reminiscent of Stephen F. Austin’s Old Three Hundred colony to the 1905 house of Henry Staiti, an early wildcatter who predicted oil around Spindletop, the gusher that catapulted the Texas oil boom.
Allen’s Landing and Sam Houston Park are at the eastern end of the downtown segment of the Buffalo Bayou greenway that runs the length of Houston from Katy in the west to the San Jacinto Monument in the east. Walking west along the Sabine Promenade from Sam Houston Park is another newly renovated segment that features nature play areas, a skate park, a dog park and various art installations.
The new renovations made by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership attract many new park visitors. A constant stream of joggers, strollers, skateboarders and bikers fly past as we walk. Later, I asked around to learn about the renovation’s impact on the city and talked to Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership.
“So many more people utilize the green space now,” says Olson. “They’re just flocking to the park.”
A big driver has been the scenery, including a new feature known as Buffalo Bayou Meadows. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership and Katy Prairie Conservancy worked together to create a series of pocket prairies throughout the greenway that collectively will form one of the largest urban grasslands in the county, a modern reminder of Houston’s rich natural history.
My mom and I reach the park’s visitor center on Sabine Street from the promenade, and continue along the path to find these pocket prairies. On the opposite bank, riparian trees look like tall, cloth-draped statues, forms barely perceivable under massed grapevines. We puzzle over a square of tall, uncut grass. Missed by the mower? Not at all! This was a pocket of prairie, left untrimmed so that it could seed and thrive. I look over at the distant bank where more of the wispy, white-tipped grasses wave back at me.
Apparently, all fashions come back in style. With the seeds sown, a reversal of sorts has been set in motion to return Houston to the Mother Bayou and the prairies. The bayou has changed with the times, from its role in the city’s founding to its place as a ship channel of changing exports to this next turn around the bend as a restored natural wonder.
Katy Prairie Conservancy Indiangrass Preserve
(713) 523-6135, http://www.katyprairie.org
San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site
(281) 479-2431, www.tpwd.texas.gov/sanjacintobattleground
Monument Inn Restaurant
(281) 479-1521, www.monumentinn.com
Sam Houston Park
(713) 655-1912, www.heritagesociety.org
Buffalo Bayou Park & Allen’s Landing
(713) 752-0314, www.buffalobayou.org
HOLIDAY EVENTS NEAR HOUSTON
Dewberry Farm Cut Your Own Christmas Tree
Nov. 25 – Dec.11
Right down the road from the Indiangrass Preserve on FM 362 is the famous Dewberry Farm, where (from Nov. 25 to Dec. 11) you can start a family tradition by cutting your own Christmas tree on the farm and let your little ones play on the 100-acre “agri-entertainment” country farm, including a corn maze.
Sam Houston Park Candlelight Tour in the Park
Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 10 and 11
On Dec. 10 and 11, from 3 to 9 p.m. and 4 to 8 p.m. respectively, the Heritage Society of Houston will host the 54th annual Candlelight Tour in Sam Houston Park where the nine historical houses will be decorated with holiday ornaments of each era and historical characters will give tours and skits, maybe with a side of caroling, too.
Dickens on the Strand
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday Dec. 2 – 4
Visit Galveston’s 19th century Victorian London for the 43rd annual holiday street festival Dickens on the Strand. Parades, strolling carolers, bagpipes, jugglers, food peddlers and craft gifts galore! Wear a Victorian costume and get half-price admission.
Christmas Boat Lane Parade
Saturday, Dec. 10
The 55th annual League City Christmas Boat Lane Parade on Clear Lake will showcase more than 100 festive and Christmas light decorated powerboats and sailboats that will travel the Clear Lake channel to Galveston Bay.
Holiday Lights Tours
Month of December
Visit the best lights Houston has to offer on Houston Historical Tours’ Holiday Lights Tours that take bus-loads of participants on three- to seven-hour tours, with a choice of what area you want to explore and holiday-inspired refreshment breaks and trivia about the holidays.