The first time I saw the lone white egret emerging from pond grass at the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, I froze. Its long neck, its graceful body moving slowly in the water, stopping to snatch a snack, so patient, so calm and confident, taking graceful slow steps forward. I felt lighter in its presence, as though it carried an optimistic aura or charm that made me believe something good would be destined to find me. I considered the bird lucky from then on.
The word “egret” is hiding inside the word “regret,” and I held a lot of regret for being in Houston when I arrived here in the spring of 2016. There was a time not long ago when Houston felt like the end. I never planned to live here. It was my ex-husband’s hometown, not mine. It wasn’t on my life plan to leave the Northeast. As a New York transplant, I originally thought Texas would be temporary when I moved to the Bayou City for the sake of my vows and family. Year two went by and then three, then everything fell apart.
Looking back, I learned to drive, tried brisket and the two-step, but I never hung a family photo on the wall. I watched the tomato plant and rose garden in the backyard die, as memories of togetherness became less and less. When I was handed the divorce papers, I knew the marriage had completely disintegrated, but still I felt deserted.
I didn’t know I would restart my life here, as I struggle to adjust to sharing time with my two kids in a place I never thought I’d be, creating a new road map for myself.
During my rebuild and recovery, I didn’t expect Houston to offer an oasis or anything serene, but I was wrong.
It’s been the natural side of the city that has saved my mental health and uplifted my reboot. Walking at the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center — just four miles west of downtown — among the tall loblolly pine trees, wildlife, wildflowers, plants, paths and trails has helped me move forward from my regrets. The branch sculpture emerging from the North Woodway Pond, a fallen tree that turtles and birds perch upon, somehow helps me regroup my mind.
Needing movement and wilderness
Looking back, the pandemic is a blur against the emotional toll of realizing the life I was living was a mistake. I had been walking in the wrong direction for over a decade. The isolation and sheltering in place in my apartment and working remotely as a journalist, gave me some time to sort through the heaviness.
I needed movement and wild terrain. After getting a lawyer, I walked to the arboretum’s boardwalk. After job interviews, I walked through the forest. After getting a lease for my apartment, I walked as the pond grass turned brown. After saying goodbye to my children at switch time on Sundays, I sat with the dead trees. After going to the car dealership to put a payment down on a used car, I walked, feeling a little more free watching the hawks and cardinals take flight.
I’m not from here, I’m not from here. I try to shift my mind from my displacement and disconnect and arrive to be nourished and find some relief in the water’s blue and green reflections, I look up at the tall pines. I let the responsibilities of life, the increasing cost of living, the to-do list, and things I haven’t yet achieved subside for a moment.
Usually, my first stop is the North Woodway pond boardwalk. The wooden walkway is where I sigh into the sounds of critters hiding in the pond grass, a dragonfly, skittish tadpoles, or a family of red-eared slider turtles sunning. I might hear a bullfrog calling for a friend or see a water snake holding its head above the pond water.
I get every dollar worth of my parking pass. I drop grief, I count the years spent and gone, time I’ll never get back. I’m older now. My babies are too. I cross the boardwalk over the pond, confront the hourglass of time emptying some more, but green comes to me, spring arrives, with the reflection of the fuller tree branches on the water.
I bring other grief, too. I carry the dead-weight from the sudden death of my father, not getting to say goodbye, so much left unsaid, and not being able to gather many keepsakes to treasure in his memory after the house fire. I focus on the tranquil panorama and somehow, I feel peace. I imagine my father’s voice telling me sometimes life isn’t an easy journey but it will get better.
I miss the northern wind, the seasons, even snow. In New York I knew canals, rivers, creeks and ditches, not bayous and swamps. I knew Lake Ontario, Onondaga, Green and Beaver Lake. I was born in the fall with the red and orange foliage of Central New York on the horizon and fat maple leaves all over my yard, the shine of an icicle hanging off a roof, the trees frosted with snow. These were the first colors of my life.
I ran in the wooded forest with the smell of the pines breathlessly during cross-country races in high school, running past chestnut trees, red oaks, tulip trees, Hickory, Spruce and Beech trees on the trail and in my neighborhood. I’ve always felt connected to the outdoors. Even in Manhattan, I put miles on my stilettos as a college student dashing to campus across from Central Park, and later as a city mom I was always outside, pushing the double stroller through the park, laying a blanket under a big elm tree, above my little ones looking at a planetarium of leaves, their arms reaching for branches and collecting acorns into toddlerhood.
A life-changing event
I didn’t expect to find such beauty in Houston. While coexisting with the butterflies and the sweeping grasslands and sparrows, in the presence of blooming sage and black-eyed Susan’s I embrace the beaming Texas sunshine on my face. I’m moving my feet, past the sturdy snags in the restored savanna. I stare at these dead trees. I wonder what the hell they have seen to lose almost everything, but these trees have found a way to be at peace with where they are and are unwilling to fall, holding dignity. In the weathered bark, I see they have made a new life, providing a comfortable ecosystem, a place for a hawk to land. I’m evolving into the person I want to be for the next half of my life.
When I admire the post oak trees, I can’t help but think about Robert A. Vines, an ecologist and educator who advocated for land to serve as a nature sanctuary which would become the arboretum in Houston over 50 years ago. I imagine the effort, care and heart of Susan McAshan, who was passionate about helping children learn about nature. Her major contributions funded the construction of the Aline McAshen Botanical Hall for Children back in 1966 which is now a part of the arboretum’s nature center building. I feel connected to why she wanted a place in the city to explore native wildlife and feel closer to the natural world. I wonder if she imagined the healing that would be found here, too. The hum of traffic on Loop 610 seems a world away.
There is love here, too. There’s a lot of hand holding and celebrations. I’ve witnessed a few proposals at the Meadow Pond, one time the photographer hiding behind a tree, the couple standing on the boardwalk with their smiles beaming. I realize now, seeing these connections of others has helped to mend my brokenness and prepared me, somehow, to keep my heart open.
Something life-changing happened. I re-met someone who swooped into my heart like he had when we were college students. I didn’t expect to fall in love again and not as my 30s ended, but it happened. Of course, during one of our weekends together, I took him to the arboretum. I wanted to share with him the place where I felt most happy.
We are still holding hands on the boardwalk. We picnic by the birding trail and at the Bayou field station we look for wildlife, and we talk about life changes, loss and disappointments of the past, we talk about what is next, and he reads, and I write.
When it is dry in the winter, I notice what is still alive. I know the Meadow Pond will be covered in lily pads by mid-April and how everything looks so fresh and mystical after a rainfall. I know armadillos are seen on the Outer Loop, and snakes, bullfrogs and turtles move about at the North and South Woodway ponds, and that’s where the egret hangs out.
On the way back to the parking lot, I pause, watching the bird emerging from the pond’s tall grass, instantly, miraculously. I’m astounded by its spanning wings as it takes flight over the arboretum, soaring, and somehow it gives me a feeling of being home.