By Elena Gehle, Texan by Nature Programs Intern
What makes me Texan by Nature? The short answer is that I was born here and love this great state. The long answer is, well…
22 years ago, I was truly blessed to be born a Texan. I don’t come from a long bloodline of Texans- my mom was born and raised in Tlaxcala, Mexico, and my dad was born in New York, but spent much of his childhood growing up in various Latin American countries. Nevertheless, Texas became our home, and what a beautiful home it’s been. I was raised in Sugar Land, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Luckily for me, I grew up right before the iPhone era, so most of my childhood was spent outdoors looking for creatures or playing with friends. My parents frequently took my brother and I fishing and hiking, and they always encouraged us to enjoy and respect nature. I was (and still am) one of those kids that had an obsession with animals. My poor mom had to endure me bringing a plethora of animals home- whether it be a toad, snake, or spider, I was fascinated with creatures of all shapes and sizes. Heck, I even kept mosquito larvae as pets (I know, weird). I wanted to learn as much as I could about nature, and spent lots of time reading books about animals, and drawing and writing about nature. Every time I wanted a new pet, I would make a PowerPoint presentation explaining the care of the animal and why it was so cool to try and convince my parents to let me get it. I must have been a pretty convincing little kid, because I was fortunate to grow up with and love many animals throughout my childhood. Our beagles Buddy and Molly were the best friends a kid could hope for, and they were always by our side, ready to play, explore, and eat every piece of food we dropped.
When I was 8 years old, my parents bought 5 acres of land a few miles away from Brazos Bend State Park. The land was quite rugged and untouched with thick vegetation and an overgrown lake, and the only buildings were a little shack, an outhouse, and a big metal roof. I remember walking around it for the first time in awe of all of the life I saw around me. It was home for a myriad of animals- white-tailed deer, barred owls, praying mantises, amphiumas, and big fat largemouth bass, just to name a few. There were also many potentially dangerous species, such as cottonmouths, coral snakes, bobcats, coyotes, alligator snapping turtles, and the occasional alligator too. My dad taught me that even though they were “scary” and could be harmful, we should respect them because this was their home too, and they all had a role in the ecosystem. Rather than clear the land and kill the dangerous species, my dad decided to let a lot of the land be, so that the habitat for all these amazing animals could be preserved. We learned to be aware and observant of our surroundings so we could coexist with the natural world around us and stay safe, and I have carried this lesson with me throughout my life. However, I was also a kid, and kids will be kids. My brother and I would canoe and swim in the murky little lake, despite knowing good and well that there were snakes and big ol’ snapping turtles and other creepy critters. I would climb up trees and swing off of them using vines, which often snapped, thus launching me straight to the ground. However to this day, I somehow avoided getting bit, stung, or seriously injured *knock on wood*.
About a year after buying the land, I got to live out every little girl’s dream- we got two horses, Bijoux and Tiffany. I felt like a real Texan cowgirl learning to ride them and care for them, which involved shoveling so much poop. Nevertheless, I always enjoyed going to work on and take care of the land, and it never felt like a chore. Over the years, we have had so many great experiences there, and have gotten to show many friends and family the joys of the outdoors. That land was, and still is, heaven to me. Every time I go it feels like an adventure, and I will always cherish the memories I have there. I hope that despite encroaching development of the area, that I will be able to protect the land and all of the life it sustains for years to come.
In high school, I was part of a foreign exchange program with a high school in Foshan, China. During my freshman, junior, and senior years my family hosted students from Foshan, and during my sophomore year, I got to travel to Foshan, China. The students that came had preconceived ideas about what Texas and Texans were like, many of which were surprisingly positive. They thought Texas was a place of great opportunity, and many of the students were already big fans of U.S. sports teams, especially the Houston Rockets. And of course they thought many Americans would be plus-sized (so what? The food is amazing in Texas). It was so fun to get to show them around our school and take them to Rockets games, many restaurants, George Ranch, Brazos Bend State Park, and Galveston, among other places. One thing that really stood out to them was how diverse Texans truly are, and how friendly everyone is. It made me proud to live in a state where no matter who you are or where you are from, you are welcome. I made many lifelong friends, and lots of the students I met through the program ended up coming to Texas universities for college. Texas is truly a land of opportunity, and it is important to ensure that Texans of all backgrounds are able to enjoy these opportunities and bring innovation to our great state.
I am currently entering my final year at the University of Texas at Austin (Hook ‘em!), and am majoring in Economics and minoring in Business and Chinese. If I am not studying, I am out exploring Austin or visiting my family and the land. My yellow lab Piper is the light of my life, and I hope to take her to explore all of Texas’ great state parks. I am truly at my happiest when I am outdoors, and still love going fishing, hiking, and riding. I’m very excited to get to travel more once it is safe to, especially to China so that I can truly test out my Chinese!
Although our state is great, there are still many issues facing Texas wildlife and Texans themselves. Extreme weather and hurricanes have destroyed homes and habitats and taken lives. Habitats are diminishing as development increases and pollution and waste continue. Economic swings have caused many Texans to lose their jobs and struggle to provide for their families. Political and racial tensions continue to divide Texans. Coronavirus has deeply impacted people and businesses across the world. The list goes on and on. But we Texans are tough, hard working people. We are resilient, and will continue to come up with innovative solutions to make our state even better. It is so important to remember and believe that we as individuals can make a real difference. Making small changes in our own lives, whether it be deciding to volunteer in your community, learning more about sustainability, or simply deciding to be more open and let yourself learn from others different from you, can make a huge impact in your community. I am so grateful to be a part of the team at Texan by Nature and work to make a positive impact in Texas communities and our natural world.