With his gift for storytelling and encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, Carmine Stahl helps bring parks and people together.
By Wendee Holtcamp
“Nothing has the character of an old magnolia,” Carmine Stahl waxes nostalgically as we gaze at the oldest southern magnolia in Harris County’s Jesse Jones Park and Nature Center, 300-some acres of biologically diverse forest along Houston’s Spring Creek. He has taken me on a tour, via golf cart, of his favorite haunts at this park, which happen mostly to be ancient trees. Nearly 80 years old, Stahl may not scramble as fast as he used to — over every hill and valley of Texas chasing wild trees — but his character and love of life show through his quick smile and gentle mannerisms. His wife, Mary Lou, and his daughter, Merry Carol Hapi, have come along, and we laugh over shared joys — growing up around log cabins, eating weird, wild edible plants, and a deep appreciation for wildlife and nature.
Several years back Stahl and I volunteered for Legacy Land Trust doing biological surveys in the Little Thicket, northeast of Houston. There was something about him that I liked when we first met. Colleagues spoke in respectful and reverent tones about him. And after reading more about his life and his views, meeting his family, and seeing the gracious enthusiasm he displays towards plants and animals, and his subtle sense of humor, now I know why.
“It takes a long time to get a magnolia that large,” Stahl says as he points out the many sapsucker holes riddling its trunk. Magnolias grow slowly, and a tree of this size — maybe 4 feet in diameter — has seen over 300 years. They grow far older, but although Stahl calls these “the most primitive woods left in Harris County,” they succumbed to the loggers’ axe in years past. He tells how at the turn of the 19th century, the Bender family owned thousands of acres between Spring Creek and the San Jacinto River and floated logs downriver to the sawmill — where today a Bennigan’s restaurant stands in Humble.
As we move on to the park’s oldest cypress tree, he explains how in other states — Louisiana and Florida — a handful of 1,000-year-old specimens remain, but not in Texas. “Wouldn’t it be fun, neat to walk up and look at a tree like that?” he pondered in a 1997 interview he did for the Texas Legacy Project, an archive and documentary series sponsored by the Conservation History Association of Texas. “But we don’t have one. They took the last one out. I personally don’t think anything a thousand years old ought to be cut down and killed,” he says with a laugh. It’s this manner of speaking truths but with a sense of love, humility and humor that draws me to him like a magnet.
Stahl grew up in the Arkansas Ozark Mountains, son of a country homeopathic doctor. He spent countless hours learning the Latin names and healing properties of wild plants — their leaves, roots, nuts, fruits and tubers. He learned which plants you could eat — something he used to his advantage on his family. Merry Carol laughs as she says, “I learned there’s a difference between edible and delectable!”
Stahl met his wife, Mary Lou, who is part Choctaw and part Cherokee, at Hendrix College in Arkansas. She authored the book, The Ones That Got Away, a family history named after the Choctaw people who chose to leave the tribe to avoid confinement in reservations. The Stahls moved to Houston in 1956, where they raised their family.
Stahl has led a colorful and varied life — in turn a wartime meteorologist in the U.S. Army, a Methodist minister, a leader of nature camps for underprivileged youth, a college professor and a naturalist. He co-authored Trees of Texas, which uses artistic photo scans of tree leaves, twigs and berries for identification, and includes interesting lore about each species. He also wrote Papa Stahl’s Wild Stuff Cookbook, if anyone has a hankering for cattail-on-the-cob, bull thistle (tastes like an artichoke) or lamb’s quarters, which has a spinach-like leaf that my own father often gathered and served for dinner in Oregon.
A living encyclopedia of knowledge about trees, plants and history, Stahl has left his mark not only on Jesse Jones Park, but on many who encountered his teachings and writing through the years. “Carmine is probably the only naturalist that I have met in my 23 years in this field that could travel the entire state and not only identify every single plant by common or scientific name, but also tell you the story of that plant that would help you remember it,” says Dennis Johnston, Harris County Parks Administrator. “I will be forever grateful to him for sharing his incredible knowledge of the natural world in a way that only Carmine could have done it.”
For years, Johnston worked alongside Stahl, who served as the park’s forester from its opening in 1982 until his retirement in 1999. That would be Stahl’s second retirement, after he retired from nearly 25 years as a Methodist minister in 1980.
“The very first job God gave man was to be a gardener, to be a caretaker of the beautiful world that he created, and I think that is really symbolic,” Stahl explains in the Texas Legacy interview. “We have the stewardship of the whole earth, and we haven’t done a real good job with that. We’re learning now that there are consequences if we don’t do a good job of stewardship. People and nature are so conjoined. We are made of the dust of the ground and to dust we do return. We are dust because we have within us the same molecules that are in the rocks and the soil itself. One of the things I try to pass on is this sense of stewardship and connection with the natural world.”
A few minutes later, according to the interview transcript, he sees a cockroach going across the floor, “Even insects like life,” he laughs. “He ran from me, because he knew I’d step on him or do something inimical to his health.”
Stahl also laid out the Jesse Jones Park trails, which traverse past his favorite old trees, such as a two-forked dogwood, on which he saw many a kid perched. “He wrote the first trail guide, which undoubtedly had the flavor of Carmine’s root-collecting days woven into the script,” says Johnston. “It set the stage for Jones Park to become the nature and history combo that it is today, as Carmine cleverly told the story of each plant, its importance to us today and its importance to our ancestors and the Native Americans.”
Every year, Jesse Jones Park hosts Pioneer Day in the fall and Texas Heritage Day in the spring, where people dress up in old-timey clothes and relive ancient days. Stahl oversaw development of the park’s Akokisa Indian Village, hidden in the woods, and the Redbud Hill Homestead, a re-creation of a 19th-century log cabin, smokehouse, root cellar, chicken house, kitchen garden, outhouse, barn, woodworking shop and blacksmith shop. Stahl considers this to be one of his greatest accomplishments.
“I value greatly the opportunity to introduce thousands of children and adults to the marvels of our natural world,” he explains. His Jones Park colleague, Mike Howlett, who is driving the golf cart, says he can’t count the number of kids who asked Stahl, when dressed up in a settler’s shirt and coonskin cap, if that log cabin was his house.
When we stop on our golf cart tour by the Redbud Hill Homestead and Stahl tells how he skinned those logs, it brings a flood of memories of skinning logs for my dad’s log cabin. As a child in the 1970s, you might think I’d have lived a life far removed from such pioneer days. But my dad built his own log cabin in Oregon and used only wood stoves to cook and heat with, and we had an outhouse, raised chickens and veggies, used kerosene lanterns and gathered spring water. It further kindles my feelings of connection to Stahl and his legacy.
As we tour the park, I ask him about how he influenced the Homestead project and he reminisces about his childhood. “My grandfather owned a big mill and people brought their own wheat to be ground. There were more wagons and buggies than cars. Some people lived in log cabins. I’m an old man. I saw a lot of pioneer-type stuff.”
“I would say the phrase ‘Papa Stahl’ kind of sums it up,” recounts Howlett. “I always recall Carmine as someone dedicated to sitting out in the homestead and answering people’s questions about an earlier way of life. It wasn’t that he lived in the 1830s, but he had a first-hand knowledge in the Arkansas hills where he grew up. He’s one of the most ‘woods-wise’ individuals I know.”