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A Beautiful Insanity

Land steward award winner says ‘failing better’ is key to conservation success.

By Tom Harvey

“OK, what we have here is another example of the consequences of my applied ignorance.”

With that typical self-deprecation, Robert McFarlane wryly describes his early effort to create a wetland on this East Texas land. It’s just one vignette from the 20-year trial-and-error process that this year earned him the Leopold Conservation Award, the state’s top honor for land stewardship.

McFarlane is an iconoclastic character known for acerbic humor, apt to throw sharp verbal barbs that test newcomers and amuse friends. The Harvard-trained cardiologist will quote Faulkner and Freud one moment and cuss like a sailor the next.

“I just think it’s better to go through life having a hoot, rather than having a wake,” he says. “I like to joke. I can bite my tongue, but it’s a lot of work. I’m not one to adhere to convention unless I think it’s useful.”

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McFarlane's conservation achievements on the Trinity have rippled up and down the river.

Yet McFarlane’s love for the land and spirit of service to others shine in his personal story of healing and growth, one that is interwoven with the story of the woods and waters he helped heal on his ranch along the Trinity River. Innovative experimentation — trying and failing and learning from failure — has been the hallmark of his journey.

“Moist soil management duck marshes are very complex, very labor intensive, and to try to manage them commercially is really a foolish thing unless you’re a little bit crazy,” McFarlane says. “I guess this was a form of insanity, but I think it was a beautiful insanity, and I’m happy to have been crazy. The only advice I have for somebody insane enough to do what I’m doing is do your best, and in the words of Samuel Beckett, ‘Keep trying, and next time fail better.’”

Despite these trials, McFarlane ultimately triumphed on his own land, and his influence has reverberated along the Trinity River. It is the most populated river basin in Texas, where nearly 8 million people live. It begins and ends in big cities and flows for more than 500 miles through highly fragmented rural lands. It dissects five of the state's 10 ecoregions before emptying into Galveston Bay. Its nearly 2,000 miles of tributaries encompass 18,000 square miles across 38 counties. The state’s two most populated urban centers, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, depend on the Trinity River to meet their municipal needs. It exemplifies the Texas struggle to provide enough clean water to satisfy many different demands.

“The Trinity River is our Mississippi [River],” McFarlane says. “You’ve got the state’s two biggest cities on each end, and I think there’s a lot of value to wild recreational areas proximate to urban people who would otherwise be living on concrete. Our state has begun to appreciate water resources and clean water. Well, all of this natural hardwood landscape cleans the water.”

To help bring back the troubled Trinity, McFarlane in 2000 founded the Middle Trinity River Conservation Cooperative, now Trinity Waters. While volunteering as president for the first five years, he convinced then-Gov. Rick Perry to create the Trinity River Conservation Initiative, making $500,000 available for conservation within the basin. Today, Trinity Waters has secured grant funding for many large-scale conservation efforts. Among these is the Water as a Crop initiative with the Sand County Foundation, the nonprofit that also bestows the $10,000 Leopold Conservation Award that McFarlane received this spring as part of the Lone Star Land Steward Awards, a program of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

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McFarlane has spent years restoring his land, including building more than 40 marshes.

But the story behind these achievements starts much longer ago.

“Freud said that what you do as an adult is really reflective of your childhood dreams,” McFarlane says. “And when I was a kid I always loved black land and black dogs.”

As a boy, McFarlane sat around the table hearing his mother’s brothers tell “what I now know are hunting lies.” He said this was “just a mythical thing for me,” and he hunted East Texas river bottoms throughout his youth.

Then, in 1970, he went off to Boston, where he lived for 15 years “learning how to play heart doctor.” He came back to Palestine, where he’s been a practicing cardiologist for 30 years.

Through the mid-’80s and early ’90s, McFarlane worked hard hours under life-and-death pressure treating heart patients. His occasional respite was access to almost 100,000 acres of river bottom. But for various reasons the woods were sold, the timber was cut, and he had no place to go. The 7,500-acre conservation showpiece he calls The BigWoods on the Trinity started as a recreational lark. He wanted some land in the river bottom, so he bought his first 1,500 acres.

During this period of heavy professional stress, McFarlane’s life began to take a turn.

“About the time I began to assemble The BigWoods, I realized I had a problem,” he recalls. “I was horrified when an old widow spoke to me at the grocery store, thanking me for having taken such good care of her husband many years before — I hardly remembered who she or he was. I stammered my way out of it semi-graciously but was inwardly terribly embarrassed. After this, I had the charts of my deceased patients put in a small room in my office where I would sit alone each month, remembering, reflecting, respecting — not forgetting.”

This theme of remembrance, of a return to better times, is central to his story.

“The great Czech novelist Milan Kundera, who spent most of his adult life in Prague behind the Iron Curtain, said the struggle of freedom against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” McFarlane said the night he received his award. “One might also say this is the struggle of humanity, of civilization. Memory is our most precious asset, being the repository of our humanity.”

And so, McFarlane’s two decades of toil have been about returning the land and river to their former glory, restoring what was lost. Before his ownership, the property was highly fragmented, overgrazed, neglected and abused. He built more than 40 marshes and dozens of levees and water control structures, greatly improving habitat for waterfowl and in the process enhancing the land’s ability to hold and filter cleaner water. He planted trees and restored forests.

Hunters from as far away as Illinois and Pennsylvania now come after waterfowl, deer and feral hogs. And with the improved habitat the property now has striking bird diversity, and is one of the state’s best places for birders to view colorful neotropical migrants, waterfowl and wading birds. These and many other benefits stem from a thoughtful focus on ecological restoration.

“You can’t go back in time; you can never re-create what was,” McFarlane acknowledges. “But you can do the best you can to marshal the resources you have to be consistent with the ecology, and the land will take care of itself. It won’t be the same, but it will be good in its own right.”

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The bottomland hardwoods on his land provide habitat for wildlife.

As the landscape slowly changed and improved, McFarlane changed with it.

“The BigWoods eventually taught me the virtue of slowness,” he says. “It literally takes the hurry out of you, replacing it with a vigilant peace of mind.”

Yet, he says, it would be a mistake to confuse this lovely stillness with something that is static.

“As Beethoven said about composing, ‘You must begin with a melody and a rhythm, but it is the addition of the sudden unexpected — changes in tempo, in register, or a new melody — the beautiful surprises that make the music compelling.’ Rounding a corner to see the nuzzling of a fawn by its mother, the regal courtship antics of soaring anhinga arcing in the sky, the ridiculous Star Wars R2D2 call of a white-eyed vireo — as with the landscape, it is the engrafting of beautiful surprises on the already magnificent that make it awe-inspiring.”

McFarlane is well aware of the challenges facing Texas — the pressures of its growing human population, the fragmentation of land ownership into ever-smaller parcels and the resulting loss of wildlife habitat. Still, he is hopeful.

“People can grow,” he says. “I’m pretty much an optimist. There was no bigger heathen than myself. If I can stay out of jail now, or have no reason to be in jail, I think anybody can do it.”

Looking to the future, he has opened his ranch gates to youth groups, among others. Last July, The BigWoods hosted the inaugural Waterfowl Brigades camp, a youth leadership camp with a waterfowl focus. For six days, from 6 a.m. to around midnight, 25 high school kids were immersed in all aspects of conservation, waterfowl biology and management, and leadership skills.

“My vision for The BigWoods is this,” he says. “One hundred years from now, another tow-headed boy, his freckle-faced girlfriend and their black dog sit under a cypress tree planted just this past winter, on the first crisp day of that autumn, their eyes scanning the northern horizon with anticipation, listening intently for that recurrent murmur in the cycles of deep time, the vanguard of another great migration, whose wild ducks instinctively come back again to their winter home, refilling the empty marshes, a place where a young boy’s most fantastic childhood dream continues to come true.”

Land Steward Awards

The Lone Star Land Steward Awards recognize private landowners for excellence in habitat management and wildlife conservation, with goals to educate landowners and the public and encourage habitat conservation. The Leopold Conservation Award is given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold by the Sand County Foundation. In Texas, the Leopold award is sponsored by the Lee and Ramona Bass Foundation, DuPont Pioneer, the Mosaic Company and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Anyone may nominate a landowner for recognition in the Lone Star Land Steward Awards, with nominations accepted June 1–Nov. 30. See the awards Web page for more information.

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