Nature Notes: “At Home on the Llano”: Celebrating a Rich Heritage at the Sibley Nature Festival, April 7-8

“It was [an] illimitable expanse of desert prairie… a region almost as trackless as the ocean,” wrote General Randolph Marcy in 1852, in one of the first English-language accounts of the Llano Estacado. The vast plateau, he said, was a place of “uninhabitable solitude, and must continue uninhabited forever.”

We can appreciate Marcy’s awe at the scale and starkness of the West Texas plains. But the record proves him wrong. For the resourceful, the Llano has always offered a home – from Native peoples to pioneering ranchers and farmers, to a fascinating cohort of plants and animals.

The Sibley Nature Center in Midland hosts its annual Nature Festival, Saturday, April 8. The theme is “At Home on the Llano.”

The “Staked Plain.” Stretching from Odessa to Amarillo, from the caprock to the Pecos River, the Llano Estacado is one of the largest mesas in North America. It was home to the continent’s earliest hunters. It sustained vast bison herds. Its early cowboys are the stuff of legend.

The Sibley Nature Center educates the public on the natural world here. More than 10,000 people visit the Center each year.

Jeremy Clothier is education program coordinator.

“Our mission is to celebrate the nature and history of West Texas,” Clothier said. “The Nature Festival is the purest form of that – a celebration of our really unique corner of Texas. It was designed as a free public program, where people can come, get to see the Nature Center and get exposed to content they won’t get other places.”

The festival kicks off Friday night, April 7, at 7 p.m., with a campfire performance by traditional cowboy singer Andy Hedges. Saturday’s activities run from 10 a,m. To 3 p.m.

The Llano’s vistas are tremendous. But the real fascination is in the details, Clothier said.

“There are places, like the redwood forest, where you’re craning your neck up to look at the top – that’s not really how you explore West Texas,” Clothier said. “What you do is get down on your hands and knees. Then you start finding desert termite tubes and tarantula holes and a whiptail lizard under here and a stink bug on the underside of a prickly pear cactus. Once you get outside and look, you’re kind of hooked.”

Festival-goers can cultivate that eye for detail on the “Habitat Highway.” The Center’s Nature Trail will introduce visitors to the Llano’s distinct ecosystems.

There’s the mesquite shrubland. Exhibits here highlight animals that are “at home undercover” – the Southern Plains woodrat, harvester ants, whiptail lizards and more.

Visitors pass through an area of restored short-grass prairie. On the Llano, this endangered ecosystem long supported bison – and bustling prairie dog towns. Prairie dogs endure next door to Sibley, at Hogan Park. For the festival, Midland’s Petroleum Museum is bringing a live prairie dog, offering a chance to “get up close and personal with the chubby ground squirrel,” Clothier said.

The Llano Estacado contains thousands of ephemeral lakes known as playas, which spring to life after a rain. At Sibley’s man-made pond, visitors will learn about this aquatic habitat. Exhibits showcase dragonflies and damselflies, and one of the region’s quirkier water birds, the American coot.

Lectures are a cornerstone of Sibley’s programming, and the festival includes two talks. At 11 a.m., author LaShara Nieland speaks on how Native peoples used the Llano’s wildflowers – for food, fiber and more. Dr. Terry Maxwell speaks at 1 p.m. A retired Angelo State University professor and revered area naturalist, Maxwell will focus on the short-grass prairie – and its transformation over time.

Human history isn’t overlooked. Louis Neely, from the Ranching Heritage Center, will share “living history” from 1860s ranching life. Folklorico dancers, from Midland’s Hispanic Cultural Center, will perform.

And visitors won’t go hungry – food trucks will offer barbecue and fudge.

Clothier said he hopes the festival helps deepen a sense of place.

“My hope is what sticks with somebody when they leave the festival is, ‘Wow, Midland really is a unique place with unique nature and a unique history, and people have been making their homes here for hundreds of years,’” Clothier said, “and that they leave with just a little more hometown pride, not only for the football team they cheer with, but for the natural world that surrounds them.”

For more on the festival, visit sibleynaturecenter.org.

Nature Notes is underwritten by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.