The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Monday, March 01, 2004

Book Review
"The Road to El Cielo" is About a Superb, Isolated Place in Mexico

Ro Wauer, January 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

This marvelous book is subtitled "Mexico's Forest in the Clouds," providing a clue to an area in Tamaulipas that is considered the northernmost cloud forest. Although it seems remote and distant, the entrance to this unique region it is only a day's drive from the Border. The nearest village is Gomez Farias, about two hours south of Cd. Victoria.

"The Road to El Cielo," written by Fred and Marie Webster of Austin, contains some truly wonderful descriptions of the region, including details of the routes to the heart of the El Cielo area, Rancho del Cielo. This site is surrounded by forest, where Marie conducted a series of breeding bird surveys during the 1940s and 50s. Since then, Christmas Bird Counts have been undertaken in the area almost every year. Four years ago, I participated in one of those counts, staying at the rather rough accommodations at the Rancho. It was a great experience there among oak-sweetgum woodlands in the highlands on the Sierra de Guatemala.

Fred and Marie first visited Rancho del Cielo in 1964, where they met a Canadian immigrant Frank Harrison, who had settled there and carved out a small clearing where he raised his own food. They fell in love with the area on that first trip and returned on many occasions. Their book discusses their various trips and the changes that occurred within the region. They document the invasion of loggers and farmers that began to severely impact the wild character of the landscape. Harrison was eventually murdered by a party of the "agrarians."

The Websters tell a fascinating story about the efforts to protect this unique environment. In spite of the difficulties of protecting land in Mexico, the State of Tamaulipas eventually established a 360,000-acre El Cielo Biosphere Reserve, a United Nations designation. A Biosphere Reserve includes a fully protected core area and surrounding land with villages and activities that provide work related the protection of the core resources.

For birders and other nature lovers, "The Road to El Cielo" is a must-read. It offers an entertaining and informative account of a magical place. Their descriptions of the bird life, the abundant mammal predators that roam the forest, and the vegetation offer insights into an area of Mexico that few Norte Americanos have any knowledge about. Their adventures into the mountains, their struggle to help preserve the land, and their contacts with the friendly and not so friendly folks of the area make it a most enjoyable read.

"The Road to El Cielo" contains a forward by an eminent scientist who has studied the region, Dr. Paul Martin, as well as 27 line bird drawings by Nancy McGowan who also provided excellent drawing for a couple of my book. This book ($34.95, hardcover) was published by the University of Texas Press (ISBN 0-292-79149-2), but is available in Victoria at Tricia's Antiques and Gifts at 117 John Stockbauer.

The Websters firsthand reporting, enlivened with vivid tales of the people, land, and birds of El Cielo, adds an engagingly personal chapter to the story of conservation in Mexico.

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