Gardens of the Cross Timbers: The sands of time

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Rat’s home sweet home

The rat at my house must be a sentient animal.  The rodent decided weeks ago the engine block of my 1997 Ford Aerostar is the perfect place for its winter home. Notice I said is.  The rat has so far constructed three cozy homes in exactly the same place.  Each nest was disassembled and placed far away from the van.  The next day the entire nest had vanished.  Seven days later, the nest was back under the hood.  Chicken wire did not deter the animal.  The rat circumvented bars of Irish Spring soap and hanging moth ball cakes.  The natural rodent deterrent “Mouse Magic’, sachets of corn cob shavings saturated with peppermint and spearmint oil, offered a charming foundation for the last nest.  The morning after the peppermint was installed, I walked to the van and saw the rat hop out and go west.  It had been busy decorating.  Keeping in the Yule spirit, the rat had taken one of the Little Trees pine scented car fresheners and turned it into a roof over its nest.  This rat has a sense of humor.  The last preventive attempt is a single layer of chicken wire with the cut ends pointing up.  A second layer of wire covers the engine compartment under the hood. It looks like a maximum-security prison in there. Perhaps concertina wire wrapped around the van, sensor lights which flash on when triggered by movement or periodic blasts of country music might work.

Eh.  The wire would scratch the old paint job.  The lights would be on most the night since we also have opossums, raccoons, armadillos, foxes, deer, coyotes, bobcats, owls, skunks, mice and assorted other wildlife in the area.  My neighbor would park his truck by the van every night just to listen to

the tunes being belted out. Perhaps I should tuck in a tiny table, stocked mini fridge, little bed, miniscule TV with cable and a small lit fireplace to keep the clever rat warm.

We’ve gone on two road trips in three years.  The first trip involved a straight shot east to the Atlantic Ocean for a one-night stay at Nag’s Head.  Got to dip my toes in sand and seawater.  At the pier we ate fried flounder and cole slaw.  From there north to Virginia Beach for two nights.  Further up the Eastern Shore to Ocean City for one night.  Turned west and spent the next few days with family in Maryland.  South to the Richmond, Virginia area to meet more family, then a state-by-state romp west to Oklahoma.  We knew where the best rest stops were.  Don’t sell eastern Oklahoma short.  The westbound Welcome Center past Muldrow was a delightful place to stop.

Oklahoma doesn’t value the travelers that pass through their state.  Besides the Welcome Centers in extreme eastern Oklahoma, there are no other rest areas on I-40 until the OK-TX border way out by Erick, or north of the Texas border on I-35.  You’re out of luck if going to the west, since the Erick Welcome Center is for eastbound traffic.  The two rest areas outside Shawnee have been permanently closed.  

North Carolina Highway 12 going north

November’s road trip was again to the Atlantic, but this time it was a week at Avon in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Trip took three days. We put on masks every time we left the car, used copious amounts of hand sanitizers, lived out of the ice chest, spent the night in sparsely populated hotels and partook of some magnificent rest stops.  The last stretch of road along the barrier island was every bit as straight as going to Woodward or Guymon.  We drove to Avon down Highway 12 on a narrow strip of sand between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound.

Eighty miles long, Pamlico Sound is actually a series of connected estuaries (bodies of brackish, salt-freshwater mixtures partially surrounded by land). By definition, a sound is a channel, inlet or bay of water between two bodies of land. North Carolina has eight sounds along the Barrier islands.  Pamlico Sound, intimately a part of OBX where we visited, is the largest sound on the east coast. The sound side is much quieter with little wave action.

The giant Pamlico lagoon is quite shallow, from 5 to 6 feet deep. The salinity is about 20 ppt (parts per thousand) compared to the Atlantic coast at 35 ppt or the Currituck sound well to the north at 3 ppt.  Fresh water is less than 0.5 ppt. The Outer Banks (OBX0 lie to the east of Pamlico Sound.  

Sweeping sand dunes

OBX is a tenuous formation of sand bars, washed out sand dunes and small islands. The long-broken segments of movable coastline span 200 miles along the mainland of Virginia and North Carolina.  In some places the barrier islands are 30 miles away from the continent.

A humid sub-tropical climate envelops the Outer Banks.  These barrier islands are incredibly important since they protect not only the mainland but the estuaries, both of which support diverse populations of wildlife.  They provide breeding grounds and nurseries for fish, turtles, shellfish and birds.

Beach reclaims the wreck of the Ocean Pursuit

The Outer Banks are now catching the brunt of early climate change. The Banks reflect what the ocean is doing.  The sand banks are responding to rising sea levels by eroding, moving or submerging. Between 2011-2015, some areas of the Banks saw sea levels rise five inches.  Parts of Hatteras Island are now at 25% of their original width.  

When driving past Kitty Hawk, we saw the foundations of one row of houses being lapped by the Atlantic.  Road graders were attempting to shove additional sand around the residences to preserve the neighborhood, but it was a futile effort.  Already one street had been lost to the deep blue sea. The reason why the protected dunes at Avon are so vital.  

On the other hand, if there were no houses or man-made structures, the barrier islands would fluidly function as they have for eons, ebbing and flowing with the tides.  Kind of like what is happening to the 72-foot-long scallop boat “Ocean Pursuit” sitting in the beach the Oregon Inlet.  The boat went aground last March.  It is slowly being swallowed by sand!

Plumeria blooming in December

Ebbing and flowing is what is currently happening in my greenhouse.  Some plants are retreating into quiet dormancy, but others, like the Plumeria, are not yet ready to go to sleep.  The Plumeria is blooming at a time it should have already dropped its leaves. The tropical milkweed is revving up, producing blooms on several stems much to the delight of the yellow aphids.  The resurrected tomato plant is into vine making.  

It’s been a strange year. Just ask the rat who knows all.

Tropical Milkweed

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at