Winter in the Woods

They Will Rise Again

Jan. 26, 2023

Step on and over the massive pile of sawn oak trunks. Step on and over the beaten-down wire fencing. And into the people’s woods on Buffalo Bayou where we’re forbidden to go, though people go anyway.

Wait! What’s this? The woods are see-through, barren, leafless. Everything is monochrome brown. The ground, muddy and slippery, is exposed. The sandy paths etched by rivulets of rain; clumps of dead leaves washed down everywhere. Limbs, branches, and thorny vines ripped and wrenched from the trees and thrown on the ground. Yawning gullies, widened by the rain, have eaten away at the edge of the trail.

Oh, yeah. It’s winter. We had a big freeze. (And before that a long drought.) Everything died. And then came a violent storm. Tornadoes tore apart homes and buildings southeast of the city.

The crows are talking about it. Even the everlasting green leaves of the yaupon and cherry laurel are gone.

Winter morning on that bend in Buffalo Bayou. Taken from the same high bank in Memorial Park with River Oaks Country Club golf course on the opposite bank. Photo Jan. 26, 2023, by SC

We’re here on the south side of Houston’s Memorial Park to take a winter photograph of that bend in the bayou. We’ve been documenting the bend from the same high bank throughout the seasons since 2014.

But we don’t remember it ever looking quite so thin and exposed.

We started a little late and were concerned about the sun being too high, rising in the east above the trees on this clear, cold Thursday morning, glaring at the camera. But when we arrive we realize it doesn’t really matter. The downstream trees that usually filter the sun are bare skeletons in the distance. They wouldn’t have softened the light anyway.

It’s cold but not freezing; cold enough to numb the fingertips. The thick mist rising off the water is smoky, swirling mysteriously. The brown water is high and turbulent, though nowhere near flood stage. At around 1,720 cubic feet per second, the flow is about half its peak on Tuesday morning, Jan. 24, during the storm. The floodgates on the federal dams, Barker and Addicks, far upstream were closed then. Apparently they were re-opened Wednesday mid-morning to release stormwater held back in the normally dry reservoirs.

Concern about the Trees and Vegetation

Back in the office we call up Mickey Merritt, urban forester with the Texas A&M Forest Service. We’d been concerned about the trees around the city. The weather has been confusing: freezing one day, summer weather the next, then cold again. There seemed to be a lot of empty trees and leaves on the ground.

Merritt said he was concerned too. Despite the freeze in early January, it’s been “a fairly warm winter,” he pointed out. “That’s why we’re having trees bud out and starting to flower.”

“If we have a deep freeze, we could have a lot of problems.”

The freeze in early January was not much of an issue for native trees, he said. The freeze a couple of years ago took out many of the non-natives, he pointed out.

But, he added, “I just hope we don’t get a deep freeze. Around freezing I would not worry. What I would be concerned about is if it gets down into the mid-20s.”

Looking upstream on Buffalo Bayou from that high bank in Memorial Park.


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