The Rewilding of Laity Lodge

To really see Laity Lodge’s landscape, you’re going to need a few different perspectives.

Start with a super-wide angle. Go a few miles above Earth, then look down—not just at the Hill Country, but all of it. Of the available square miles on the planet, only about 50 million acres are ice-free. In the last few thousand years, humans have managed to transform more than half of that land, writes journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, “by converting it to cropland and pasture, but also by building cities and shopping malls and reservoirs, and by logging and mining and quarrying.”

The longer we’re here, the more we’re learning that because we’ve transformed so much land, we’re also going to have to transform it back—rewilding as much land as we can.

Now, come back down, all the way to the Lodge, which has become a good bit more wild in recent years thanks to a renovation engineered by Austin-based Ten Eyck Landscape Architects. Walk the property with fresh eyes, starting up the hill at the facility known as Cedar Brake and working your way down the path past the Lodge and to the river, looking all around you as you go.

Not long ago, your walk would have been across a parking lot, then through a well-manicured lawn framed by shrubs and trees mounded with mulch beds. It was a nice walk, the caliche rock lot notwithstanding. But it was not a walk through the wild.

When the Foundation rebuilt Laity Lodge and installed the facility known as Cedar Brake in 2015-2017, we replaced the lot and lawns with meadows and a woodland garden, along with an improved fountain, new seating areas, and more. Today, the Lodge’s land is wild again, and with each season, it gets a bit wilder.

Look close in all four seasons: The spring bursts with mind-blowing color; the summer falls back and folds in, even as sunflowers tower and new wildflower seeds form for future growth; the fall and winter show off an intentional mess of multiple browns, with dormant grasses and mulching leaves feeding the ground and its inhabitants below.

Now look past the plants, across and above them. Or just listen—there are more birds today, and more types, and they linger longer. Look down, and spot vital insects doing double duty—pollinators for the flowers and food for those birds. Now look down further—actually, bend down, take up a scoop of dirt. The mound in your hand is teeming with uncountable invertebrates working the roots and soil. Life, life, and more life.

As the meadows mature, this earth underneath will become more and more sponge-like. That’s a primary goal of riparian (river-side) zone renewals like this one. Before, this soil was sandy and loose, and rainwater rolled right through. Rewilding the area with native plants is turning it into a sponge that holds and filters water, using it and cleaning it before it hits the Frio River.

You have to go to seed to be able to bloom

Laity’s landscape is the brainchild of Christine Ten Eyck. You can see her work throughout Texas, including the common grounds at Pearl Brewery in San Antonio, the South Congress Hotel in Austin, and the New Parkland Hospital in Dallas.

Ten Eyck says that when she first saw the Lodge, she knew what the area needed: a return to an earlier time. “We are trying to rewild Laity,” she says, “to what it might have looked like 100 years ago.”

Of course, 100 years ago, humans were not trying to enjoy the Frio River Canyon in quite the way we are. Which raises a question: Rewilding makes ecological sense, but does it make aesthetic sense? The Lodge has guests all year, and relatively few of them will get to experience the explosion of color that visits the meadow each spring.

Ten Eyck counsels patience and a longer perspective. “It’s the cycle of life,” she says. “We all have periods where we don’t look so very good, and we all have periods where we look better than ever. But you have to go to seed to be able to bloom.”

She also points to the purpose of all seasons. “The showiest season is spring-summer, but the end of summer is one of the most important times [for the land]. When it is turning brown, all the seed is ripening for the coming season. And then those seeds lay in the ground and they wait for the right time to germinate. Sometimes they’ll wait for years before they come up.“

Duke Divinity School Professor of Christian Theology Norman Wirzba is a regular Lodge speaker, and he’s had a chance to take in the before and after of the Lodge landscape renovation, most recently in the dead of late winter. “We want a world that blooms for us all the time,” he says. “[That] reinforces this notion that if the world isn’t on our terms, the world can’t be properly right for us.

“Good things are worth waiting for. If we think that we shouldn’t have to wait for anything good, that we should have it immediately on demand, we’re going to be perpetually unhappy. That’s a radically diminished life.”

Still, even folks conditioned to appreciate nature can admit that appreciating the wild—particularly when it looks dead—can take some getting used to. Mark Purcell is the executive director of the United States branch of A Rocha, a Christian conservation organization. He’s also a longtime Lodge guest (he is the brother of Steven Purcell, the Lodge’s director) who first encountered the new landscape on a day when nothing much was in bloom.

“When I first saw it,” he says, “I thought, Hm, that’s kind of ugly. I wonder if it’s finished. I said, ‘Where did the bird feeders go?’”

But Purcell, who is an avid birder, says he soon realized that “the reason there are no bird feeders is that you don’t need them!” Before, the feeders were necessary to attract birds because, he says, “the grass that was there, while beautiful, was an ecological desert. Birds like food and shelter. That grassy field didn’t provide much of either.

“Now, because [the landscape] provides food and shelter, the bird population in that area has grown exponentially. I’m seeing birds  out there all the time—and a variety of birds that hadn’t been there before.”

It’s an ecological truism that birds are an “indicator species”—the presence of birds is a sign of land health. In other words, the restored landscape is working—it’s becoming healthy, and that health has ramifications the land and its visitors—human and otherwise—will enjoy for years to come.

Michelle Bertelsen is a land steward and ecologist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She advises that when we look at the landscape, we take special care to notice what’s around and amid all the flowers—even when they are in full bloom. “I love the flowers, and they’re amazing,” she says, “but really it’s the grasses that are the workhorses. They’re not as showy, and they don’t give you that beautiful color, but I’ve heard them described as a forest upside down.

“Most of the work is going on under the ground. We can’t see it, so we have less respect for it, but those hardworking communities … are grabbing water and pumping carbon into the ground. The prairie systems are spectacular at this.”

Note her comment: “We can’t see it, so we have less respect for it.” The Lodge landscape is a kind of training ground in seeing and in learning to see all we can of this created and blessed earth and in learning that there’s more happening than what meets our eyes.

People tend to use the phrase “there’s more than meets the eye” to indicate that things are not as simple as they seem. That’s true of all sorts of things, and it’s certainly true of wildflower meadows and woodland gardens. As we walk the grounds at Laity Lodge, we are invited to open our eyes a bit further and see all we can, on every day of the year.

Laity Lodge Native Grass and Wildflower Seed Mix

Sourced from Native American Seed, Junction, Texas

Shade-Friendly Wildflower Mix

Habit: Annual & Perennial; used for approach to Lodge
Rangeland: 12 lbs. seed per acre
Lawn & Garden: 1 lb. seed per 2,000 sf

Scorched Earth Recovery Mix

Habit: Annual & Perennial; used in new meadow
Rangeland: 9 lbs. seed per acre
Lawn & Garden: 1 lb. seed per 1,200 sf

Article by Patton Dodd. PDodd@hebfdn.org

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