We took Bill Wimsatt to McKinney Falls State Park last Friday. Wimsatt is one of the most prominent philosophers of biology in the world today, and one of the few that have had an active interest in ecology and conservation. This was an invitation to showcase what we’ve achieved here in Texas with respect to nature protection, and the beauty of our state, but it is not clear that we made the most of this opportunity.
Situated barely thirteen miles south of downtown Austin, the 745-acre McKinney Falls State Park consists of the ruins of the homestead of Thomas F. McKinney, one of Stephen F. Austin’s three hundred original Anglo colonists. The habitat has recovered somewhat from its past, but it is far from the blackland prairie that it mostly was before European encroachment. What is most unusual about this park is the unfriendliness of the staff at its headquarters, probably a result of the park’s onetime popularity with inebriated picnickers. (Unfortunately, this park is not one of Austin’s better-kept secrets. When I began teaching Environmental Philosophy at the University of Texas in 1999, “camping” at McKinney with a keg of beer was one of my undergraduates’ preferred modes of deep communion with nature. That public consumption of alcohol is illegal in Texas State Parks hardly put a damper on their enthusiasm. On a more positive note, the type of students the course attracts now has changed for the better. Or, at least, for the quieter.)
Bill was in town as the respondent to a debate I had with another of his former students, Paul Nelson, associated with the so-called Discovery Institute and a university that goes under the name “Biola,” an acronym for the Bible Institute Of Los Angeles. (The Disovery Institute—for those who are unfamiliar with it—is the major Creationist “think“ tank we have in our midst in the United States.) The debate was on intelligent design, the currently most-favored Creationist alternative to evolutionary theory. It wasn’t much of a debate, with Nelson conceding that intelligent design was far from being a scientific theory, that it had no legitimacy as part of a high school curriculum, and that it had to develop a laboratory research record before it can be taken seriously. We must just hope he doesn’t get in trouble with his handlers at the Discovery Institute for this lapse into intellectual integrity. I, for one, prefer Creationists with some teeth.
Introducing Bill to some of Texas’ natural wonders was a far more interesting project though we were severely limited by the time that remained available after all the obligatory academic stops. We were at McKinney Falls only for a few late afternoon hours. The park lies at the confluence of Onion and Williamson Creeks. There are pools, rapids, and waterfalls here, but our current drought has muted their appeal. Water flow was barely more than a trickle. There are short hiking trails of exceptional botanical interest, and longer ones that also accommodate mountain bikes—the latter are best avoided. We took the obligatory Rockshelter Trail leading past a large limestone overhang created by periodic floods of Onion Creek. The space under the overhang provides shade and a picturesque view of the Onion Creek rapids some fifty feet below. It one of the more serene spots in the park, a perfect place to enjoy a pipe. But I’ve rarely found the space uncluttered, and Friday was no exception—we shared it with several other groups none of which stopped long enough to savor the view below us. Well, at least it was cool on an unexpectedly hot afternoon, and we sat there and talked for a while.
The plant life along and around this trail was astounding in its richness: wafer ash (Ptela trifoliate), several junipers, prickly pear (Opuntia lindheimeri), pencil cactus (Opuntia leptocaulis), Texas red oak (Quercus falcate), Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana), Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana), were just a few of the trees we could easily identify. (And, of course, the usual oaks.) The drought has affected all the vegetation, as it has throughout our region, but wild bluebonnets have begun to flower in the meadow that dominates the plateau above the creeks. In spite of the ongoing drought there are some signs that this will be a good year for wildflowers. This meadow is surprisingly bereft of large trees presumably because the soil is too shallow for the roots—prickly pears, not in the best of health, dominate the landscape. Alien invasives in the area include the chinaberry (Melea azedarach) but the park does not seem to be as overrun with invasives as most of the other preserves in the Austin area.
The park has the outstanding interpretive Smith Visitor Center and other facilities designed to appeal to urban visitors from the city. There are far too many visitors, and not of the type that hikes silently. It is not quiet, and the level of human noise on the trails on Saturday was far greater than what I remembered from my last visit seven years ago. Except for raccoons we saw few signs of animal life. This park provides a textbook example of how management for (relatively) undisturbed nature often cannot co-exist seamlessly with management for intrusive recreation. But, without the latter, at least in a place such as Texas, there would be little synmpathy—or resources—for the former. To manage this park properly, variant images of nature must be synchronized in a way that is probably impossible.
In retrospect, to the extent that we wanted to extol how well we manage the remaining natural areas of Texas, and how much natural beauty there still remains in our state, we should have taken Bill to a more promising area—even Bastrop State Park, not that far away, would have been better.