Our Prairie People: Amy Martin
Exploring Nature with Amy Martin
Long time NPAT member, Amy Martin is a prominent figure in the North Texas nature writing scene. She is the author of Wild DFW: Explore the Amazing Nature Around Dallas-Fort Worth and Itchy Business: How to Treat the Poison Ivy and Poison Oak Rash. Amy covers the nature community as senior reporter for GreenSourceDFW. She is currently writing the biography of Ned Fritz, one of Texas’ most important environmentalists. She also serves as NPAT’s social media director.
Amy’s work goes beyond the traditional confines of the genre. It’s an amalgam of scientific information, ecological insights and personal experiences—all woven together to form a narrative that’s as engaging as it is informative.
Read more about her latest book, Wild DFW: Explore the Amazing Nature Around Dallas-Fort Worth
How did you get interested in Texas Prairies?
My husband and I were looking to buy some rural land in Northeast Texas, focusing on parcels with lots of woods. Driving down a county road in Fannin County, we saw a parcel with a large Bermuda grass pasture. Ho hum. Then we noticed in the corner a bathroom-sized stand of brushy bluestem with its unruly seedheads. It boldly proclaimed life in a swath of sameness. Stopped us cold.
Pre-internet apps like iNaturalist, it took some searching to discover what the plants were. That led us to Blackland Prairie material. We realized the prairie deep in the soil wanted its day in the sun once more. So we bought the land, killed the Bermuda, and seed-drilled in a Blackland Prairie mix, tutored by our local NRCS guy, Randy Moore. We dubbed the place Osage Moon.
We kept diving into all things Blackland Prairie, which led us, of course to Clymer Meadow. The first time I drove up to Clymer Meadow, a Blackland Prairie preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), it seemed like an open field of unmowed grass. Then I walked it with Jim Eidson, TNC’s now-retired North Texas preserves manager. Beneath my feet, he said, no plow ever tore the soil asunder, leaving intact its biome of fungi and microorganisms many thousands of years old. I stood on ancient living history.
It’s easy to be impressed by towering mountains and redwoods. A prairie is receptive and horizontal—the sky is half the landscape. Yet it begs intimate inspection. Kneel and gaze at the first eighteen inches. The riotous tangle of foliage is as thick and diverse as a rainforest.
The prairie profile is a landscape of leafy mounds. Long, strappy leaves of big bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass extend up five feet or more and then arc to the ground, creating shelter domes for animals. Eidson showed how bunchgrasses form bird-nesting cavities in the center.
The tallgrass prairie palette changes weekly. Waves of wildflowers paint it pink, purple, orange, and red. Sunflowers compete to see whose yellow is most beloved by the sun. Fall brings the bronze and gold seedheads of native grasses, undulating in the breeze like ocean waves.
On that long-ago visit to Clymer Meadow, the peace of the Blackland Prairie swept up from beneath, reminding me, as the poet Mary Oliver wrote, that my sole job in this life is to pay attention. I listened to the melodic whispers of history woven from roots and leaves, minerals and rain, and the brilliant sun. The land holds memory, weeping and laughing as required. The prairie is a song.
Do you have any rituals or practices that help you connect with nature?
I don’t hike for distance or to make iNat observations or to bird watch. I hike to experience nature. Once down the trail 30 yards or so, I stop and literally shake off the drive over and the worries of the day. I inhale deeply with my mouth open and ponder the aroma of where I’m at. I close my eyes and listen in layers, from the skinks skittering in the leaf litter to coyotes slipping through underbrush to birds pecking. I think about the air I am immersed in and its qualities: the air pressure, humidity, and breezes. I inhale and feel the electromagnetism from the Earth’s core than infuses every inch of the planet up to the stratosphere. I exhale and feel the tug of gravity on my tailbone. I consciously awaken the proprioceptors on my joints and use them to detect what’s around me that my five senses can not.
Are there any authors, books or museums that inspire you about nature?
The paleontology and gem and mineral halls at the Houston Museum of Natural Science are my happy places. Authors: Ian Frazier, Kathleen Norris, Mary Oliver, Edward Abbey, John Graves, Lewis Thomas and Diane Ackerman
What kind of research do you undertake to ensure accuracy and authenticity in your nature descriptions and references?
Wikipedia is a great place to get a general overview of a topic. Much of their science material is well done, but I check the footnotes to be sure it’s sourced well. Texas Parks & Wildlife is near endless amounts of Texas-specific material on their website and then they’ve got staffers, experts in specific fiends, that I can tap into. NPAT, of course, for prairie material. But great info also comes from citizen naturalists who are passionate about their chosen study genre—birds, bugs, rivers, and so on—and share generously.
How do you weave scientific or ecological information seamlessly into your narrative without overwhelming readers?
After writing a chapter or section, I print it out, and go do something unrelated for a couple hours. Then I go to another room besides my office, and read it as if for the first time though the eyes of someone unfamiliar with the topic. Where do I lose them, where do I bore them? The process reveals all the assumptions I’d made by skipping over underlying premises that I take for granted, but most people don’t even know. It also helps to read it aloud. That’s how you find sentences that are awful, or where the info is so dense it’s tedious. Obstacles like that must be dealt with so the reader can be carried along seamlessly.
Do you have a favorite natural place that serves as a wellspring of inspiration?
I never tire of watching the activity in my backyard. My office window is immense. Or sitting beneath mama chinkapin oak who’s about 120 years old. When I’m stuck, a prairie walk opens me up. When I need to uncover deeper meaning in what I’m writing, the introspection of a forest is perfect. Is my writing style not being poetic enough? Off to the river or creek I go to get into the flow.
I love southern winters. Fewer bugs, the poison ivy is abated, the ragweed is dead. All the overwintering birds are around. The structure of bare-limbed trees is endlessly fascinating, especially post oaks. The moon is much brighter in the winter and higher in the sky. Less people on the trails, too.
Favorite trail to hike?
For every season and every mood, there is a favorite trail.
Do you bring nature conservation into your yard? If so, how?
I gave up my desire for neatness. Let the leaves pile up in corners of the yard, allow dead stems to stay up. I provide water for the local critters in a variety of ways. I think every bird on the block uses my hanging waterers. A small pond for mammals to drink at and amphibians and dragonflies to breed in. Piles of rocks get watered so frogs and toads have a damp hangout in the heat. Supplemental food for the birds when natural stores are low. I keep the yard dark at night.