Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

My great land loss for 2021

with 76 comments

Today is Earth Day. That notwithstanding, not a single year in the past decade has gone by that development hasn’t claimed one or more properties where I used to photograph native plants. In the last few years the loss has been running four, five, or even six annually as the Austin area has kept up its rapid growth. Two days ago I drove out to a field in Pflugerville on the west side of Heatherwilde Blvd. immediately south of Spring Hill Elementary School. From 2016 onward I’d been photographing great colonies of wildflowers there in early May, and I went to see how things were coming along in 2021 after the delay or even total suppression of blooming that our frozen week in February had caused to some species.

Alas, I discovered that my flowerful field of yesteryear has become a construction site of today. As I did once before with another recently lost prairie site, today’s post commemorates the way the Heatherwilde Blvd. parcel of Blackland Prairie looked in the first half of May 2019 but will look no more.

The white flowers are prairie bishop (Bifora americana); the yellow are square-bud primrose (Oenothera berlandieri) and Engelmann daisy (Engelmannia peristenia); the yellow-green are prairie parsley (Polytaenia sp.); the red are firewheels (Gaillardia pulchella); the blowing grass is purple three-awn (Aristida purpurea).

I should add that the southernmost end of the property, separated from the construction site by trees and perhaps under different ownership, has so far survived. I got good pictures in that area last spring and will go back in the weeks ahead to see how the flowers are doing there. It may be my last chance.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

April 22, 2021 at 4:40 AM

76 Responses

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  1. I suppose people need houses so land has to be built on, but it is very sad. Do any of the wild flowers appear in the gardens of the houses? I am just wondering whether it is possible for seeds to lie dormant. I remember in my parents’ last house they had wild poppies coming up in their garden which used to be farmland.

    Heyjude

    April 22, 2021 at 4:52 AM

    • As I’ve seen development in Austin over the years I’ve often thought about the fact that people need to live somewhere, and with more people come not only more houses but also more stores and roads and other things to support those people. Sometimes I’ve thought back to the house I grew up in on Long Island (New York). It was brand new when my family moved into it in 1947, and the land before then had probably been part of a farm. Still, I wish in every new development a portion of the land were left natural. Instead, developers of residential subdivisions often cram in as many houses as they can to maximize their profit.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 22, 2021 at 6:12 AM

      • Yes, it would be nice if they left some natural open spaces for people to enjoy. Parks and ponds should be part of urban development along with shops and schools.

        Heyjude

        April 22, 2021 at 7:29 AM

        • I realized I didn’t address your question of whether wildflower seeds ever sprout on the properties of people in new subdivisions. It’s certainly plausible, given that some seeds have been known to remain dormant for quite a while before sprouting, but I don’t know if that has been documented in subdivisions.

          Steve Schwartzman

          April 22, 2021 at 8:11 AM

          • I wonder if any did germinate, would they be recognized and treasured, or dismissed as weeds?

            eremophila

            April 22, 2021 at 8:19 AM

            • You raise a good question. I remember an incident in Texas some years ago of a homeowner’s association wanting to fine a resident for allowing bluebonnets, the official state wildflower, to take over the front lawn. It seems the homeowner’s association considered those flowers weeds.

              Steve Schwartzman

              April 22, 2021 at 5:01 PM

          • This assumes the developers leave the topsoil intact. If development over there is anything like here in NZ, it’s a ghastly process where developers remove the topsoil and then sell it to other homeowners wanting to establish gardens on their topsoil-less land. It may initially get left in huge piles exposed to the elements and become nutrient-depleted and weed-infested. Awful!

            Ms. Liz

            April 22, 2021 at 4:46 PM

            • I didn’t wander into this property because it’s an active construction site. From what I could tell at a distance, it looked like the topsoil was gone, as you said, but I couldn’t be sure. I don’t remember if there were piles of the type you mentioned. That area is part of the Blackland Prairie, a large region in the east-central part of Texas which was named for its rich soil—and of course that’s why wildflowers flourished there once the land had been left alone for years. It’s a sad situation indeed.

              Steve Schwartzman

              April 22, 2021 at 5:07 PM

              • Sigh. Devastating to hear of what you’re losing. We’ve also lost much good land to ‘development’. Trying to rein in the developers is a herculean task that’s nigh impossible!

                Ms. Liz

                April 22, 2021 at 6:45 PM

                • And you may recall that when I visited NZ I was appalled to see how much of the native bush had been cut down, and how many alien plant species imported.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  April 22, 2021 at 8:20 PM

  2. Happy Earth Day to you as well. It seems like new development is happening everywhere these days. Pave paradise and put up a parking lot. Or rather a new subdivision.

    WanderingCanadians

    April 22, 2021 at 7:09 AM

    • The Austin area has been booming for years. In 2020 a safe thing to do was drive around in our car, which we did plenty of. In the process, we were surprised by the number of construction sites we came across that we hadn’t been aware of the year before. Some were whole new subdivisions. It was clear that the pandemic hadn’t slowed down construction at all. It may be good for the economy but I’m sorry for the loss of so much nature.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 22, 2021 at 7:20 AM

  3. I do feel your pain, and have been feeling it for months, partly because my favorite parcel of land was sold, mowed, and ringed with those dreaded purple posts that signal ‘No Trespassing.’ It was a small bit of land, but so rich: ladies tresses, milkweeds of various sorts, coneflowers, purple leatherflower and a host of others bloomed in season. Even though there’s been no building yet, it’s regularly mowed. I was told that the new owner wants to ‘keep it tidy.’ He’s certainly accomplished that.

    shoreacres

    April 22, 2021 at 7:53 AM

    • I’m sorry to hear it. You know that I’m with you in deploring that kind of “tidy,” which I’ve referred to as “mower mentality.” Maybe you should do a post similar to mine, showing what has disappeared from that parcel of land.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 22, 2021 at 8:14 AM

  4. Look up Paolo Soleri https://www.arcosanti.org/

    MichaelStephenWills

    April 22, 2021 at 8:04 AM

    • Most interesting, however, given the years since it commenced, how many others have copied it? Same as those farmers who actually truly care for the land with regenerative practices….too few ….

      eremophila

      April 22, 2021 at 8:24 AM

    • I’d heard of that project. I wonder how economically feasible it is: does it cost more than the average cost to build homes?

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 22, 2021 at 8:29 AM

  5. How sad! It seems to me that the human race is spreading like cancer of Planet Earth not realizing that we are cutting off the branch on which we are sitting. Unless this tragic trend stops we will find images like yours only in our archives.

    Peter Klopp

    April 22, 2021 at 8:24 AM

    • I’ve come to think of part of my archive as a good documentation of how things once were and what has been lost. As long ago as 2000 I did a presentation consisting of before and after views of some properties in the Austin area that had gotten developed.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 22, 2021 at 8:31 AM

  6. The same continues in my home state. Formerly productive market garden properties turned into concrete deserts. As for native plants and creatures, they struggle to find safe havens. All shades of Soylent Green, if you recall that movie.

    eremophila

    April 22, 2021 at 8:29 AM

    • I didn’t see that movie when it came out but I did watch it some years ago on television. A lot of native species of plants and animals are resilient and adaptable, with some even thriving in cities and suburbs; other species clearly are not so resilient and adaptable and are having a hard time.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 22, 2021 at 10:38 AM

  7. This incredibly sad story is repeated the world over, a huge ecological loss. As the folk song goes, “When will they ever learn?”

    Eliza Waters

    April 22, 2021 at 8:46 AM

    • I’ve borne sad witness to those losses over the past two decades. I replied to an earlier commenter that “as long ago as 2000 I did a presentation consisting of before and after views of some properties in the Austin area that had gotten developed.” A whole lot more properties have gotten developed since then, unfortunately.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 22, 2021 at 10:42 AM

  8. We’re dealing with this in Houston, too. My neighborhood had a lot of extra parcels of land that folks kept ahold of because taxes were low but then they raised land values a few years ago and everyone started selling their extra land so now there are less empty lots and more houses. I had a lot I got milkweed on for my monarch cats and now that the lot is sold they mow it too often, including just two weeks ago during peak monarch season and I know there were monarchs over there that were massacred. It’s incredibly depressing.

    Misti

    April 22, 2021 at 9:32 AM

    • I suspect the same thing is happening here. Housing prices (and taxes!) have been soaring in the Austin area, so land that had been held for years has increasingly been getting sold to developers.

      Your phrase “a lot of extra parcels” is interesting in that “a lot” can mean ‘a parcel of land’—and that’s how you used it in the next sentence—as well as ‘many.’

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 22, 2021 at 1:01 PM

  9. How sad that field of wildflowers is gone!

    Lavinia Ross

    April 22, 2021 at 9:39 AM

  10. Your images are beautiful. It’s quite something to find fields of flowers. Though we don’t see expanses of wildflowers in such broad colonies here, we do have pasture and fields for cattle grazing (and not as much agricultural planting) where wildflowers thrive. I am thankful that most of Oklahoma does not have many large cities where growth gobbles up the land. And this particular region of the state is populated by a poor population so we have little to no growth of towns and cities. Now that government has shut down fossil fuel production in what used to be an energy state and our main source of income, the economy is at a standstill here. If it wasn’t for recent medical marijuana production and sales giving this state a boost, we would have little hope for growth at all. One can often find wildflowers popping up on abandoned properties, or along roadsides in ditches, and along fences closer to town. Livestock does not seem prone to nibbling wildflowers so beauty abounds in the rural landscape. I am fortunate to live in an area where wildflowers and trees still “roam” freely.

    Littlesundog

    April 22, 2021 at 10:38 AM

    • I like the way you put it: wildflowers roaming freely. They’re not as free to do so in the Austin area as they used to be, though every year I still keep finding at least some large displays. Highway embankments are potentially good sites but the mowers are at least as likely as not to mow the flowers down prematurely. They stupidly stick to a schedule regardless of what the conditions on the ground are.

      As for Oklahoma, doesn’t a lot of the drilling there take place on private land, so that the federal government couldn’t stop it?

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 22, 2021 at 3:15 PM

      • I know the Oklahoma Corporation Commission regulates oil and gas drilling here (as well as utilities and telephone companies), but I’m not sure how involved they are with federal regulation and guidelines.

        I wish too, that those who mow the highways and interstate right-of-way would mow when it’s fitting for seed production and dispersal. I follow that kind of plan here. This time of year I mow around various wildflower patches, to allowing flowering and seeding, and I wait until the plant is dried up before I mow over in the late summer or early fall. It looks crazy and people ask why I have patches of “brown” out there, thinking maybe I missed a spot. It’s all done purposefully. This year I have very nice, big areas of wild yarrow! I’m excited about how it has progressed over the years of my crazy-type conservation mowing!

        Littlesundog

        April 23, 2021 at 9:45 AM

        • That’s because you have a sense for nature, while mowers have an obsession with destroying nature. Maybe you should go on local radio or television to explain to people. I’ll bet you could convince some folks.

          Steve Schwartzman

          April 23, 2021 at 11:57 AM

          • Unless I’m touting global warming, climate change or some other politically motivated science (which I feel is propaganda), I’m not sure I would get anywhere. I am so disillusioned with the media and their censorship of the truth… but you have made a valid point to make an effort to convince people. I will look into groups around the state who promote native plants and reclaiming our wild prairie grasses and wild flowers. It’s possible that they are already implementing such measures since we see more wildflowers along highways and interstates in the last decade.

            Littlesundog

            April 23, 2021 at 12:48 PM

            • For almost all of the decade that I’ve been issuing posts here I’ve kept to nature. So much craziness has hit us in the past year, though, that I finally relented and have begun pointing to good things that others have said and done, or even saying things myself. I may have lost some viewers, but at the same time I’ve had positive comments. I’m hoping that’s a sign that there are more sensible people than it seems there are if you watch the news. If good people stay silent, what’s to stop bad things from infecting the country?

              Steve Schwartzman

              April 23, 2021 at 1:02 PM

  11. Cities, suburbs, exurbs, highways, endless sprawl. A staggering amount of chemical fertilizers and weedkillers hosed onto lawns, so people can devote decades of their lives and countless gallons of gas to mowing the grass. Three dozen lost fields of wildflowers just in the Austin area. It’s tragic.

    Robert Parker

    April 22, 2021 at 11:12 AM

    • It’s been tragic for a person like me who has been consistently photographing nature here for 20+ years and who has seen those dozens of properties disappear. As each spring has arrived and I’ve headed out to take a new crop of pictures I’ve dreaded finding out what the latest losses are.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 22, 2021 at 3:19 PM

      • You’ve got to talk the state and/or some oil billionaires into creating more preserves

        Robert Parker

        April 22, 2021 at 3:29 PM

        • In the early 2000s a group of us native plant people went before the city council of Round Rock, an adjacent suburb north of Austin, to suggest that they purchase a particular property and set it aside as a natural area. We didn’t convince them. The Austin area does have some good preserves but, as you suggest, more would be better.

          Steve Schwartzman

          April 22, 2021 at 4:31 PM

  12. Such a tragedy, Steve. These are bittersweet pictures – how beautiful it was. I had wondered whether to post about one of our versions of your lost landscape today before reading this post, but I am so sad about it, I didn’t have the heart and posted a picture of somewhere else instead. Our field was never as pretty as your wildflowers, but has been a place I’m very fond of. It is so much easier to destroy than it is to put right. One of the terrible things is our council gives permission for place after place to be developed but often they run into trouble, land here being much less valuable than it no doubt is in Austin, and then the land is neither wild nor used but somewhere broken in between.

    susurrus

    April 22, 2021 at 11:43 AM

    • I’ve been through so many of these losses that I’m almost numb to them. Yes, this was such a beautiful place. While I and other people got to enjoy it for several years, no one else ever will get to do so. Before this year I’d fantasized that the developers could leave some portions of this great field intact and build around them, but that’s not what happened; everything’s been entirely razed. Maybe you should go ahead with your plan to post about the lost field near you, even if it wasn’t as pretty as the one over here. It’s good for people to hear about such losses and the problems brought on by developments that are started and then abandoned.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 22, 2021 at 3:52 PM

      • You’re right, but I can’t face it at the moment. I have written twice outlining my objections to the council as part of a local consultation project, but permission to build had already been granted, so the consultation most likely was not done in good faith. A good expanse of topsoil has been scraped off. It was mossy ground with a small animal hole almost every footstep. The land itself may prove to be its best resistance as it it patently unsuited for housing.

        susurrus

        April 22, 2021 at 4:58 PM

        • I understand that you don’t feel up to facing it at the moment. There’s no getting around the fact that some things are depressing. Another commenter (Ms. Liz, above) also mentioned topsoil removal, which seems to be what happened at this site in my area.

          What you say about certain land being unsuited for housing has been the salvation of some properties. Closest to home for me is my neighborhood’s natural area, Great Hills Park. In some places creeks created slopes that are steep enough to prevent development, and bottom land is subject to occasional flooding. As a result, after the developer finished building, the land that couldn’t be built on got turned over to the city for a park.

          Steve Schwartzman

          April 22, 2021 at 5:28 PM

  13. I know that spot. And that story. I’m glad I moved to Milam County. But I’m sure its turn will come.

    Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

    April 22, 2021 at 12:15 PM

    • Ah, someone who knows the spot. I hope you got to see it looking as flowerful as in these pictures. Are you aware of any places in Milam County that are looking particularly good now?

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 22, 2021 at 4:32 PM

  14. That’s so sad. There are few things as beautiful as a field of wildflowers like the ones in your photos.

    cloverandivy

    April 22, 2021 at 2:27 PM

  15. It is crushing to find development in our beloved wild places. I sympathize, Steve.

    Jet Eliot

    April 22, 2021 at 4:22 PM

    • Thanks. I knew this field wouldn’t hold out for much longer, but even though I expected it I was still saddened to see its demise.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 22, 2021 at 4:35 PM

  16. It is funny here because at the same time that there are new developments in places like Folsom, Auburn, Vacaville, Woodland, taking over farms, ranches, and natural areas, there are also a number of small, shrinking towns within one, one and a half hour from Sacramento. One has to wonder, why are some places chosen to grow over others that become abandoned. The problem with some of those new developments is, they are located in areas of chaparral scrubland, an ecosystem ruled by fire. People move there, then one year they lose everything to a fire. Sometimes they stay, next year they lose everything again.

    Alessandra Chaves

    April 22, 2021 at 5:02 PM

    • Look at all the trouble California has gotten into with wildfires in recent years. Most notable was the so-called Camp Fire, which I see now “was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, and the most expensive natural disaster in the world in 2018 in terms of insured losses.” Your comment is the first I’ve heard about the fire problems with chaparral scrubland in particular. (I grew up in New York drinking Sacramento brand tomato juice but I’ve never been to the Sacramento area itself.) Have the authorities there been publicizing the fire dangers of building in the chaparral area?

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 22, 2021 at 5:14 PM

      • I don’t think so, this is just a conclusion I have arrived at after reading about the importance of fire to the renewal and maintenance of the biomes around me. Fire season is very bad around here, the air is hard to breathe and the smoke travels miles. Sometimes we don’t see the sun for several days.

        Alessandra Chaves

        April 22, 2021 at 5:46 PM

        • That must be strange. I hope you at least get some good sunsets and sunrises from that particulate matter in the air.

          Steve Schwartzman

          April 22, 2021 at 5:56 PM

  17. 😦 happy earth day x

    thegriefreality

    April 22, 2021 at 5:41 PM

  18. You’ve written before about such losses and in your case they seem to never end. I doubt that ZPG will ever solve this problem as more and more people have families that have more families and it is not going to change, sadly. We are fortunate here in New England that after most of our forests were cut much land has reverted back to large wooded acre tracts. Of course, much of the land is also less than friendly to construction so that helps.
    As you mentioned, it would be good for some planning to allow for the retention of wild spaces which would be good for plants and insects. For wildlife however more than an acre or two are required and those places that are conserved need corridors because animals don’t stay in one place. The natural world apparently is not as important as human endeavor and Earth Day is a good time to consider the consequences of our priorities.

    Steve Gingold

    April 23, 2021 at 5:02 AM

    • I couldn’t place ZPG so I searched and found it’s zero population growth. For most of human history, having lots of children was insurance against the inevitable loss of some of them, given the ravages of disease, poor nutrition, and practically no health care. With the advent of modern medicine and a higher standard of living, the birth rate has gone way down in prosperous countries, to the point that in countries like Japan the birth rate is below replacement. With that in mind, some (many?) people believe that the best way to bring down population growth is to see to it that currently poor places become more prosperous.

      Your observation that “much of the land [near you] is also less than friendly to construction” echoes what I said above to susurrus about Great Hills Park in my neighborhood: “In some places creeks created slopes that are steep enough to prevent development, and bottom land is subject to occasional flooding. As a result, after the developer finished building, the land that couldn’t be built on got turned over to the city for a park.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 23, 2021 at 6:48 AM

  19. We never learn until it’s too late. A species which only watches its own umbilicus will not survive.

    tanjabrittonwriter

    April 23, 2021 at 5:18 PM

  20. Sad to see it go to ‘development,’ beautiful images though, Steve.

    Sheila Creighton

    April 24, 2021 at 2:21 PM

    • Yes, I took lots of beautiful pictures there over the past few years. Now it’s lost, like several dozen other sites.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 24, 2021 at 3:43 PM

  21. What a poignant commentary on Earth Day, Steve. Thank you. I am so sorry that loss due to development has taken such a huge toll on some of your favorite natural areas!😢

    Birder's Journey

    April 25, 2021 at 3:08 PM

    • Thanks for your commiseration. Year after year the losses have continued. At least we have some parks and preserves than won’t get developed.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 25, 2021 at 4:15 PM

  22. Sorry to hear about the developments Steve …

    Julie@frogpondfarm

    April 27, 2021 at 2:50 PM

  23. Oh! These are such adorable fields of wildflowers. Sorry to hear about the construction site. It is a shame really. These were truly beautiful sights. Hope the little piece of wildflower garden remains as it is.

    Monica Singh

    April 28, 2021 at 2:45 AM

    • Alas, I don’t see how the remaining piece of land can continue as such, given the development on adjacent properties and the continuing growth rate in the Austin area.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 28, 2021 at 6:30 AM

  24. We are seeing more & more of our once majestic unincorporated landscapes gobbled up for new housing construction and destroying this precious resource.

    My heart is heavy with sadness.

    S Gunn

    May 12, 2021 at 8:21 PM

    • I’ve felt that sadness year after year as more places have disappeared. Over the last five years the pace of loss has noticeably increased.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 12, 2021 at 9:27 PM

  25. […] my April 22nd post I sadly reported this year’s loss to development of a great piece of Blackland Prairie in […]


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