The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Book Review
God's Country or Devil's Playground
edited by Barney Nelson
Ro Wauer, December 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

This is a book especially for all those who love West Texas, particularly the Big Bend Country and the adjacent wild lands of northern Mexico. It contains a marvelous selection of short and longer articles by a wide assortment of authors, from Edward Abbey to O.W. Williams to your's truly. Article dates extend from John Bartlett's 1850 piece, "Horse-Head Crossing to Delaware Creek," and William's 1908 "The Lobo," to Mary Austin's "Jornada del Mureto," published in 1924, to Kirby Warnock's 1982 piece, "Ghost Lights," above the Marfa lights.

"God's County or Devil's Playground" covers a huge diversity of topics, from geology, such as Kenneth Ragsdale's fascinating article, "Cinnabar," and Walter Prescott Webb's "Wrecked Earth;" various animals, such as Frederick Olmsted's classic "The Mustangs;" to various plants, such as Keith Elliott's "The Marvelous Maligned Mesquite." Other animal articles include some of my long-time favorites, some that I read years ago, but somehow got away. Evelyn Mellerd's 1977 piece on scaled quail - "They Live Here Too - Our Quail" is a favorite, as is Virginia Madison's "Pronghorn," and Vernon Bailey's 1905 classic: "Mexican Bighorn." Of course, William's "The Lobo" is one that should be read by anyone who loves the outdoors. Plus, Roy McBride's "Las Margaritas," about a Mexican wolf that eluded him for years, is one that I had never before read. And I suppose to counterbalance those two wolf pieces there is John Duval's "Mr. Cooper was a Humbug," about being attached by wolves and his incredible escape by climbing into a high snag for the night.

Barney Nelson's selection also includes a few articles that are centered in northern Mexico. The best of all these, of course, is a chapter - "Maderas del Carmens" - from my book, "Naturalist's Mexico." It covers several trips that I took into the highlands of Mexico's Sierra del Carmens. Barney also includes a marvelous 1949 article by Aldo Leopold, "Guacamaja," about his search for the thick-billed parrot. Bob Burleson and David Riskin's "Rural Housing" includes fascinating descriptions of Mexican frontier housing. In addition, Joe Graham's article - "Candelilla Wax" - offers the reader a really good perspective of the candelilla wax industry, including the processing and transportation. And a new translation of Antonio de Espejo's 1583 article, "Exploring the Rios" is also included.

Several articles that might be lumped into an adventure category are included, as well. My favorite is Robert Hill's "Running the Canons of the Rio Grande," a true classic. And "My Final Trip," an article Fred McCarty, describes a near fatal river trip through Santa Elena Canyon. Louis Agassiz Fuertes's "A Letter from the Chisos Mountains, " Herbert Brandt's "Birding at Boot Spring" are two favorites. And Nelson has even included William H. Echols's 1860 article, "The Camel March," about the Army's early experiments on using camels in desert areas.

From the above you can readily see that "God's Country or Devil's Playground" contains a bunch of articles that truly express the essence of the Texas Big Bend and adjacent Mexican frontier region. Nelson, professor at Sul Ross State University at Alpine, introduces six sections of articles with her own perspective. Her anthology contains nearly 60 articles that she believes are the very best nature writing from the Big Bend of Texas. The authors include several well-know writers as well explorers, trappers, cowboys, tourists, historians, and waitresses. Her selection is excellent!

"God's Country or Devil's Playground" was published by the University of Texas Press (ISBN 0-292-75580-5). It contains 347 pages and is available both paperback (at $22.95) and hardcover (at $60.00).

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