An icy wind strafes the South Texas desert as we grab our backpacks and walking sticks. Our guide, Kelly Timmons, has just briefed us on the steepness of our descent to see the White Shaman Mural, a famous example of prehistoric rock art. Kelly volunteers with the Witte Museum which now oversees the preserve, and her sense of responsibility for all of us is palpable.
As we turn to go, she notices two service pins on my jacket.
“You’re a Master Naturalist?” she asks.
“Yes,” I reply. “I completed my training last year.”
“I’ve done the training also,” she says. “I just need to finish my volunteer hours. It will be great having you on this hike. I don’t know as much as I should. I’m sure you’ll be able to point out a lot of features to us.”
I smile, but inwardly I wince. Unlike many other Master Naturalists, I am not a walking encyclopedia of taxonomy. I often rely on others to help me identify animals and plants. My specialty is to offer a strong back at work parties, as well as my writing and editing skills for our newsletter. I’m learning but I often feel inadequate.
As we begin the decline into the canyon, two things are clear. One, Kelly is at home in the desert, walking with a lively, athletic stride. Two, she is modest about her knowledge. Though she apologizes for not knowing the names of a few species, her other observations enrich our hike. She shows us resurrection plants brought to life by recent rain, as well as leatherstem, also called sangre de drago (dragon’s blood) because of its red sap. She describes the many uses of the agave lechugilla by native people. She points out clear imprints of rudist and turritella fossils.
“It’s amazing,” I say, “that we are standing on what was once the ocean floor.”
She nods, scans the vista, takes a deep breath. A huge smile comes to her face.
Down we go, then up a ladder-like set of steps to the cliffside alcove sheltering the mural. It is stunning! Only its original creators know the fullness of its meaning, but Kelly and her co-guide, Lacy Finley, describe the prevailing theories—part origin myth, part solar and lunar calendar. What I find fascinating is that the celebrated central figure is most likely the Lunar Goddess, decapitated and adorned with snakes. The Aztecs had a similar violent myth that described the triumph of the sun over the moon. Lacy recounts how archaeologists climbed down to the mural on the winter solstice. Exactly at sunset, a shadow fell across the neckline of that goddess. It gives me shivers!
Just prior to our return, we have a few moments to examine the mural more closely, taking turns photographing and marveling. I walk to the edge of the alcove and scan the panorama. In the distance, beyond beautiful cliffs, is the Pecos High Bridge—a monumental trestle above the Pecos River near its intersection with the Rio Grande.
Kelly joins me.
“It’s breathtaking, isn’t it?” she says.
Then she sighs contentedly.
“This is my happy place,” she says, and the depth of her love for this desert environment—its plants and animals, its human and geologic history—is nothing short of contagious.
I think to myself: this is the heart of the matter. Master Naturalists can share copious head knowledge about the natural world. That’s important. The science is not only fascinating; it is key to understanding ecosystems and their preservation.
But on a deeper level, what we impart is our joy of immersion in nature. We communicate our gratitude for its rejuvenating power. As pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson once said, “It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.”
Back in the parking lot before departing, Kelly and I bump elbows (COVID-style) rather than shake hands. I thank her for the excellent tour, but later I regret not praising her for conveying that deeper love at the heart of the matter.
Hopefully, she’ll read this post. Thank you, Kelly!