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Conservation Journeys: From Austin to West Texas and Back

Each summer since 2000, students from St. Stephens Episcopal School in Austin have sacrificed the comforts of home and family to spend a month living and working in the remote and beautiful Davis Mountains of West Texas. Led by biology teacher Johnny Wilson, a 22-year member of the St. Stephen’s science department, the group bunks at The Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve and helps Conservancy staff with chores such as clearing brush to restore Ponderosa pine and building trails with hand tools. They are also taught essential outdoor skills like orienteering and telemetry training and given the opportunity to assist graduate students from Sul Ross State University in several fields of biology and wildlife study.

For The Nature Conservancy, the students are welcome visitors, able-bodied and hard-working young men and women with a passion for nature and the willingness to both learn and practice the strenuous tools of conservation.

For the students, the trip provides the rare opportunity to unburden themselves of the trappings of city life, even if only for a short while, and to have real, meaningful experiences in the wilderness.

And, as each group learns every year, the rugged, awe-inspiring landscape has a way of bringing people together, of forming bonds where none had been and strengthening those already in place. What follows is a firsthand account of the 2010 trip, written by Matt Vale, a June graduate of St. Stephen’s.

In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey describes the most beautiful place on earth. He says it exists uniquely for each person as “the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.” Two summers ago, when I first came on a summer trip to the Davis Mountains, Mr. Wilson recommended that we all bring along Desert Solitaire. The first time I read these opening pages I was sitting in the grass, the McIvor Center to the east, Mount Livermore to the southwest, and swallows making exuberant arcs over my head. I sat totally unaware that within just a few weeks, I would begin to think upon that very spot with the same sense of home that Abbey describes.

Throughout the time I’ve spent at the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve, I’ve caught scores of snakes and lizards, netted quail at night, trapped hogs, tracked turkeys, unwittingly chased a coyote with a quail’s radio transmitter in its stomach, watched forest fires, been attacked by moths and ladybugs, and been involved in goofing-off and introspection of many varieties. My time in the mountains has been an incredible experiential bounty. There are certain things you feel like you’ll never forget.

The Davis Mountains is a place where simplicity takes hold of you. St. Stephen’s students come here to swing picks under the quiet but persistent humor of Greg Crow, the preserve manager, to be baffled by dizzying, nebulous sunsets, and to sit together in warm, dry air, steeped in the rowdy goofiness of our semi-wilderness, and all the wordless sentences in between.  

In roaming the high ridges and creek beds here, whether in the midst of service work, or ecological studies, we’ve each invested something in these mountains. These investments come in the form of acres of cleared brush, new trails, scientific findings, or just sheer heart and soul—the simple feeling that such a beautiful place is deserving of our admiration and respect. In each case, we pile into the St. Stephen’s vans to drive away from the McIvor Center feeling a real dedication to the continued existence and preservation of the Davis Mountains. Mountains which, in more ways than one, have really begun to feel like home.

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