Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Onion Creek has been a killer creek

with 29 comments

Overturned Tree on Onion Creek 2619

Onion Creek in south Austin, which you saw wind-whipped last time, has a history of flash floods that have knocked down large trees, ruined houses, washed away bridges, and unfortunately also drowned people. Here you see the first of those kinds of devastation as I photographed it on January 21 in McKinney Falls State Park. I don’t know when water raging down the creek felled this tree, but there was a devastating flood on Halloween in 2013, and two more floods in 2015.

Notice in the first photograph that a few man-made objects carried by the creek got caught on what became the uppermost parts of the overturned tree’s base. Nevertheless, the straight object that rises the highest and looks like it could be the leg of an upturned chair is natural. Notice also the bald cypress tree (Taxodium distichum) on the far side of the creek at the left. I can’t identify the fallen tree, but below is a closer look at its revealed roots. Even though it’s a different photograph, not just an enlargement of part of the first picture, I think you can match up the tangled roots in the two images without much trouble. It may not be so easy in the photograph above for your imagination to match up the placid, shallow (on the left), even dry (on the right) Onion Creek with the Shiva Creek that it has repeatedly become.

Roots of Upturned Tree 2613

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 9, 2016 at 5:02 AM

29 Responses

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  1. Wow, shots are impressive, Steven!


    February 9, 2016 at 6:23 AM

  2. When I first moved to Texas, I remember being surprised by the flood gauges in the hill country. I couldn’t imagine the trickles flowing over those low water crossings reaching six feet or more. Silly me.

    The root ball is quite Medusa-like, don’t you think? And your mention of Shiva reminded me of the famous quotation: “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” I either didn’t know, or had forgotten, that it wasn’t original with Oppenheimer, but comes from the Bhagavad Gita.

    The cypress on the left look as though they’re pointing cautionary fingers at that root ball.


    February 9, 2016 at 8:23 AM

    • I’ve wondered whether those flood gauges always stand up to the floods they’re supposed to measure, given that some of our floods have washed away bridges and large trees.

      Medusa hadn’t come to mind, but you’re right to have thought of that. As you saw, I went for a different tradition (thereby bringing up Leonard Cohen’s “Let Us Compare Mythologies”). From documentaries about the development and testing of the atom bomb I knew that Oppenheimer was quoting from the Hindu scriptures rather than creating a line of his own.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 9, 2016 at 3:14 PM

      • I just finished reading the linked article about Shiva, and was especially interested in one detail. When I wrote recently about being still, quoting Neruda and Thomas Merton, I excerpted the Merton passage that begins his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. There was a word in the article about Shiva I vaguely recalled — Samadhi –and when I went back to Merton’s full passage, there it was, in the opening paragraph.:

        “How the valley awakes. At two-fifteen there are no sounds except in the monastery… outside, nothing, except perhaps a bullfrog saying ‘Om’ in the creek or in the guesthouse pond. Some nights he is in Samadhi; there is not even ‘Om’.”

        Apparently, Conjectures was the book that revealed Merton’s turn to the East. He was praised by the Dalai Lama for his understanding of Buddhism, and condemned by Catholics for everything from syncretism to apostasy. It’s hard to believe he died nearly fifty years ago, and impossible not to wonder where his journey would have taken him, had he lived.


        February 9, 2016 at 6:15 PM

        • Ah yes, I remember samadhi from the long-ago days when I first read about Buddhism.

          I’ve heard of Thomas Merton but I don’t know much about him. In looking at the Wikipedia article on him just now, I noticed a commonality: both of us commuted to Columbia from a town on Long Island (he from one in Queens, I from one in Nassau County).

          I see that Merton died of an accident when he was only 53. That’s good reason for you to wonder what else he would have done.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 9, 2016 at 8:13 PM

    • Medusa like: now that’s a fitting description!


      February 9, 2016 at 3:19 PM

  3. I am amazed by how tangled the roots are. It makes me very curious what type of tree it might have been, and whether that is normal for that species to do that. It would be hard to remember what those little trickles are capable of becoming, and as I understand it, the water rises very quickly?


    February 9, 2016 at 9:01 AM

    • I’ve never seen a creek rise like that, but I’ve read accounts of how quickly the water comes up. That’s one reason people drown: they think they’re sufficiently high up, but then the water soon reaches them. It’s common along these flood-prone creeks to see debris caught in trees 5 or 10 feet above the ground even though the ground there is already well above the normal level of the creek.

      An expert might well know what kind of tree this was, but I didn’t see any features that clued me in.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 9, 2016 at 3:19 PM

      • Keeps you on your toes, living there. Our river just spreads out and smears mud all over everything to the depth of about a foot. Still quite powerful, though.


        February 9, 2016 at 3:59 PM

        • Every year here the police and fire departments have to rescue people who get caught in creeks. Perhaps people in your area get stuck in the mud and have to be rescued.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 9, 2016 at 4:42 PM

  4. We do have quite some floods here sometimes, don’t we? I – coming from Germany – share the experience of shoreacres: you’ll have to see a flashflood to believe what it can do. The wet weather creek at the edge of our property is a good example:
    Here’s what it normally looks like and after a little rain:
    And the following links show it after the torrential rain on Memorial Day last year:
    Well, we don’t really need flash floods, but some good rain would be very welcome now.


    February 9, 2016 at 9:26 AM

    • I discovered that those videos aren’t mutually exclusive. I had them all running at the same time, which magnified the sound of the falling rain and the rushing water.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 9, 2016 at 4:45 PM

  5. Wow.
    The roots of the cypress look as though they’ve been painted, rather than photographed. Altogether quite a surreal scene.


    February 9, 2016 at 5:57 PM

    • I’d never thought of those intricate roots as being painted, but you clearly saw them that way. Definitely surreal, either way.

      I don’t think that the overturned tree was a bald cypress, but I could be wrong.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 9, 2016 at 7:56 PM

  6. Not only are these pictures interesting and striking for their abstract features, but they are symbolic of the destructive forces of flood waters. Here in Queensland we see sudden flash flooding of dry river beds or calm still creeks often. It’s incredible what a raging torrent of water can do and sadly many underestimate its power and are swept away by attempting to cross. Salvador Dali and the Mad Max film sprang to mind when I viewed these. There is a surreal quality about the first picture that reminds me of Dali’s work and I suppose the destruction must remind me of a post apocalyptic Mad Max film.


    February 11, 2016 at 12:51 AM

    • From what you’ve said, Queensland has a lot in common with Texas. For quite a while now, authorities here have been promoting the slogan “Turn around, don’t drown” (which rhymes in some dialects), but there are still always a few people each year who underestimate the power of seemingly small quantities of flowing water to carry a car away, and there are plenty of low-water crossings here to put those people to the test.

      I get the Dalí comparison but I’ve never seen Mad Max.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 11, 2016 at 6:41 AM

  7. This photo has been nagging at me since you posted it. I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it reminded me of. This afternoon at work, it came to me: kelp.


    February 12, 2016 at 6:43 PM

  8. It’s probably a location and species thing, but I’ve never seen an uprooted tree with as complex and interesting a root system as this. Most of the ones I’ve seen are not nearly as thick with roots and most have large rocks or even boulders entangled.

    Steve Gingold

    February 13, 2016 at 6:58 PM

    • The same for me. Despite the large size of the tree, its root system—or at least what’s showing—seems not to have been deep. Like you, I’m accustomed to finding plenty of rocks, even large ones, embedded in systems of exposed roots.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 13, 2016 at 7:35 PM

      • Obviously, the shallowness of a root system has a lot to do with the ease with which a tree would be toppled. I don’t recall seeing one with a deep system and imagine they would snap before uprooting when wind blown.

        Steve Gingold

        February 13, 2016 at 8:02 PM

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