“The rivers flow not past, but through us . . . .” John Muir
Carol Cullar, Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas, vol. 3 2006-2007
There's something ineffable about coming home from anywhere else on earth and hitting the east Maverick County line, headed straight into a screaming sun, its talons digging runnels in the ancient seabed as it fights to stay just a few moments longer in Chaparral Country. This is where the scrub brush abruptly hunkers down a bit tighter to the low, rolling limestone and takes a stronger toehold as the land tips into the barancas and arroyos making up the Rio Grande Basin. It is here the sun’s struggle up the bluffs on the other side of the river will irretrievably drag it into the Chihuahua Desert; and there is no turning back.
Find a little rise and pull off the road. Put on a big straw hat and get out to stretch. This is the place for it. Barbed wire extends as far and at times as straight as the eye can see, dense thicket tangled beyond in a threnody of thorns.
The Tamaulipan Biotic Province is the most biologically diverse on earth and ranges from the Gulf of Mexico into the Sierra Madre Oriental of Mexico, from below the sea’s surface to above 10,000 feet elevation. Here, there are more varieties of birds, butterflies, plants, so I'm told, than anywhere else on the planet. And all that variety is encompassed in an area larger than the state of Illinois. With a few exceptions along the creek beds, none of the plants are much over head high. Nothing interrupts the breadth of Texas’ skies.
Maverick County lies on the northern fringes of this vast rolling plain, where the earth is a tan biscuit, steaming; and the river’s waters leak slowly down Texas’ beefy flank like thin brown gravy.
The Rio Grande Basin is roughly one hundred miles wide through this stretch of its amble to the sea. If I stand in the county road in front of my house, I can see the Cerranitos del Burro, the Little Donkey Peaks, in Mexico more than sixty-five miles away on the western world-rim. There’s not much between the two of us—myself and those mountains—a couple of dusty adobe villages: Jimenez, and further out, Remolino.
I've been there, you know. Remolino, "the windmill," is situated at the end of the roughest road I've ever traveled. Past that, on the way to my friend's ranch, the track gets worse—limestone creek beds make a joke of the truck ads on TV. The road limps through the eastern fringes of the Chihuahua Desert, cradle to the evolution of all cacti on earth; and therefore, still the most species-diverse region for those thorny green delights. After that, the track drops into some of the wildest stretches left in North America along the Rio San Rodrigo, deemed by the few who’ve swum in its turquoise waters one of the most beautiful on earth.
Motts of chapote, Texas persimmon, scatter through the blackbrush and cenizo, the guajillo and allthorn, mesquite, huisache, and cresote. Merely their naming plunges us into another language, an alien land, a land in which water is god and all things struggle to survive without its blessing. What defines this place, this 54,600 square miles of semi-arid chaparral and mixed prairie, then, is the relative success with which each organism has adapted to meet that challenge.
This is where I’ve chosen to make my stand; this dry and dusty thicket on the Mexican Frontera is home.
It is not a place of grandeur. There is no majesty in our vistas. Southwest Texas must spread her beauty thin, for a simple reason: there’s just so damn much of it. Texans are willing to glory in meager blooms and modest panoramas in exchange for the generous distances between those far-flung jewels. There’s still a lot of country out there. There is even more sky.
And at dusk in the country, out amid those open spaces and the bird calls, if you live at the end of a country road and your nearest neighbor is down the road a piece, you can encounter a quiet and a peace never found in cities. You can feel the kiss of a certain wind. It’s a little wind by relative measures—just a riffling flutter across one’s cheeks like some great and unseen cloak thrown about the shoulders in preparation for departure. The susurration of its coming and the exhalation of its going, merely a sigh against the cheek, a caress over the hairs on nape and body. In a vehicle going down the highway, this breath would pass unnoticed. Moving between buildings on a busy street would foil its detection. But if one is move-less and away from all that—that speed and noise and clutter and confinement we toss into our habitation of this earth—then one is free on a clear evening to face the east and greet the caress of the wind that chases the sunset ’round the world.
This is why we choose to live in desert places and tell each other tales of wildness, taking unto ourselves a measure of that primeval essence which pulls us near untrammeled, untamed edges of the world.
In fact, I don’t know any city-folk. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re not acquainted, just that I don’t know them like, say, I would cousins who’d grown up in the same little Texas Panhandle farm towns I did, or who’d picked cotton beside me when child labor laws didn’t apply to farmers or their families, or if they did, then it was somewhere in a law book and not between the double rows of a red-clay cottonfield.
I wasn’t forced to pick cotton at an early age and didn’t have to support a needy family. My parents were school teachers who’d half-escaped their roots, but were never far from the family farm. It was a matter of wanting a bicycle the fall I was ten and hearing my older cousin was making good money for college next fall, that sent me to the grocery/hardware store early one late October morning to buy a pair of brown cotton work gloves. My dad drove me down to the county square in Wheeler, Texas, at the crack of dawn that Saturday. The store was open and a crowd milled about because a slow cooker had overheated in the night and caused a minor fire. They sold me the work gloves despite clean-up efforts and all the confusion. I paid twenty-five cents for gloves that forever smelled of charred meat and the sawdust used to sweep oily, wood floors.
Soon after, my dad dropped me at the edge of a friendly farmer’s field a few miles east of town and waited till the farmer located an extra sack he thought I could pull. It was nearing sunset when he picked me up.
Admittedly, my sack was not as long as my cousin’s. I think her sack was twelve feet, just like those the men were pulling. My cousin’s sack was her own, and she was a pro, the daughter of a second generation ginner, hardened to the heat and dust—almost six feet tall, able to work four rows at a time on her knees and three years into saving for her escape. By the time she reached the end of one of those long rows, she’d be dragging just under two hundred pounds of cotton in the bole.
We never “picked” cotton, as in the Southern plantation tradition of the previous century, although we called it that. What we actually did was termed “pulling boles.” Their weight could add up, if you went at it two-handed like Cousin Karen did and knew what you were picking for. Ten cents a pound at the end of every row was good money in 1954. If you couldn’t drag your full sack all the way to the end of the row, then you lost time trudging back and forth with an empty sack to your stopping place, taking two treks for others’ single trips. That was my case that day as I tried to keep pace with the competition.
I’ve conveniently forgotten how many days I picked. What I will never forget is the grit in my teeth, the smell of those gloves, the weight of the sack across one shoulder, the slatted bonnet my mother insisted I wear to keep the sun off my already freckled nose, and the twenty-five dollars I earned to buy that second-hand green and white bike. These are not unpleasant memories.
What I gained from the experience was an intimacy with the earth that has stuck with me despite side trails taken in academic and artistic directions that at times wandered far from the land. This need for country and wide expanses, this connectedness and passion for the earth and growing things is one that, somehow, no offence, I can’t see city-folks experiencing.
At the first of each summer between 1950 and ’57, my parents packed us up and departed the Texas Panhandle for the amber brooks and streams around Gunnison, Colorado, where my father pursued an admittedly leisurely Master’s Degree in Industrial Arts, but in reality majored in trout fishing. He took a double major: rainbow and speckled, with a few courses in brown. It took him six summers to complete what was generally a twelve month task. First of all, classes had to meet in the mornings and dismiss by noon, or he’d not get enough fishing done before the brief summer showers moved up-stream around four. There was no second criterion.
My sister and I always tagged along on these adventures: one day to Soap Creek, the next to Grasshopper, the next down the Black Canyon of the Gunnison itself, before they built the dam and swamped the best fishing on earth. Mother had a camp box with cornmeal and flour mixed in a Ball jar, a long-handled black skillet, a jar of bacon drippings, sometimes yellow squash or okra, salt and pepper. That was fifty-six years ago now, but when my mother goes, I expect my sister and I will fight over that red and yellow crate.
Mother read mysteries in the shade of a pine near the series of Studebakers we drove, Dad clambered over the boulders beside rushing torrents, wetting an endless supply of earthworms. Between sessions of delivering grasshoppers in sweaty palms, my sister and I ran free.
We tasted things we shouldn’t have tasted; we poked into holes best left unexplored; we waded in water so cold that our legs and feet turned blue and one misstep would have sent us cascading forever down turbulent currents. We sang “Clementine” at the top of our lungs. We were free. We were wild.
No one neglects their children like that today. No one forgets about their children on rugged trails in remote state parks in this age. Soccer practice from five to six; ballet and band till five on Thursday; T-ball at nine sharp on Saturday mornings is the current regime.
Along those remote logging roads, kingdoms rose and fell, over which we ruled with passion and imagination. We discovered wild currants and “snap-grass,” the taste of pine tar and even road tar. I learned that if something is puddled and smells like manure not to taste it (again.) I learned that there is nothing on earth as richly flavored as a wild, vine-ripened strawberry warmed by the sun. My sister and I learned that if we got stuck anywhere, no one could hear us over the roar of the stream; we had to rescue ourselves. Rescuing one’s self is probably the most missed opportunity of children today.
Even earlier, between 1944 and ’50, we lived on a tiny farm between an orchard and the pig lot. My father got up at 4:30 each morning to milk the cow and feed the pigs. He came home from teaching to the same chores in the evenings, milking twice a day despite having teams to coach. The air was always redolent of rising cream and fermenting pig slop, peach blossoms and pig wallows.
In addition, we gardened and maintained fourteen bee hives; and in the late fall, smoked the bees and robbed them of their summer’s labor. For this task we set up twenty-gallon washtubs on sawhorses under the shade of a scrawny shelterbelt.
Aunts and grandparents came to help cut the combs from the frames, trim them into fruit jar-sized rectangles and crush and strain the remaining honey from its wax compartments. We cousins, all eight of us, ran barefooted from tub to tub, giddy on too much sweetness, stealing scraps of honeycomb, ignored for more important tasks.
Those honeycombs held the distilled essence of peach and pear, wild plumb and alfalfa from our fields. We ate it on biscuits from scratch with butter churned by hand from our cow with strips of bacon from our pigs and eggs from our chickens—all watered from the same “gippy” well.
Later that evening, those lush jars were rinsed and stored on tall shelves lining the walls of the storm cellar beside the mustang grape juice and wild plum jelly harvested from the banks of the Canadian River during other adventures into the wild.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that a friend introduced me to the French term, terroir, for the character and body and essence of the earth itself. Perhaps this is why the old saw proclaims you can’t take the country out of the girl, for our bones were grown cell by cell from the gypsum dissolved in that small farm’s well.
Saturday nights, we were scrubbed in that same alkali water, in those same honey tubs and did not get in-door plumbing or running water until I was nine.
I’m not sure what melody in the phrase “cellar door” prompted Baudelaire to proclaim those two words the most powerful in the English language, but I doubt he’d sat with the men along the wall of a dugout to anchor the door chain in place with their combined body weight during an Oklahoma twister. He never crouched, surrounded by glistening jars, wide-eyed over tales of shoot-outs and land-grabs during the ‘03 land rush or completely forgotten his fear of tornados during tales of a red-haired, naked maniac running with an axe toward Widow McKaskel’s soddy back in Indian Territory, nor gasped when she left her biscuit dough, grabbed both children, and ran two miles, dragging them to the nearest neighbor’s place. He had no opportunity to hang breathless at the telling of how men had armed themselves and made up a search party. He did not cry out in dismay with the mortified widow when no sign of such a man was found, or rejoice to hear how five years later down one of the gullies in The Breaks south of Texola, a red-haired skeleton was found, supposedly, with axe in hand. But as an adult when I first encountered the French poet’s pronouncements, I drew my own conclusions about the mystique of cellars and granted him, at least, a grasp of the melodrama inherent in their existence.
Having lived in Texas most of our lives and in the Panhandle for our formative years, our family has many tornado stories. The most beautiful I ever saw was in Gray County, west of McLean the summer of 1955 or ’56.
When the sirens sounded from the fire station downtown, neighbors gathered at the only house on that edge of town with a storm cellar beneath it—an impromptu party, where Kool-aid and disaster flirted. Our fathers put washtubs on their heads and ran out into the fury to pick up hailstones the size of baseballs for us to juggle and suck. The twister came on the tail of that storm.
The drumming roar of the icefall finally quiet, our ears rang with the silence, the storm almost gone. The world smelled like chopped salad; fat mulberry leaves littered the yards and streets. Trees stood naked in the unnaturally still air and eerie green light.
Poised to flee that early summer eve, we stood in the opened door of the garage near the cellar entrance and watched as different colors of dirt spiraled up the tornado’s column, perfectly formed and slender, each coil limned, light and dark.
Silent from such a distance, with the setting sun attempting to break through behind, the twister writhed and snaked and danced in a sentient glide across the flatland a couple of miles out of town: the most absolutely living thing I've ever seen. That cyclone killed no one, venting its spleen on some pig troughs and a metal barn or two, and we laughed as it passed us by--those bubbly laughs that well up through the froth of life and leave us giddy, holding hands with the dust and mud that we are.
It is in an outhouse where one learns to become observant of nature and discovers the most remarkable wildlife: black widows and scorpions, bats and stray lizards. But on the path out and back to those essential conveniences, that is where the courageous are forever separated from the faint of heart.
Between the farm in Texola and the trout streams of Colorado lies Eagle Nest, New Mexico, and the rugged log cabin owned conjointly with uncles and cousins. We left for trout school two weeks early each May and returned via the cabin two weeks late at the end of each summer for six years. From age six to twelve, we slept in log bunks and learned to cook on a four-burner wood stove. Cousins accompanied us. Aunts and mothers dozed and read; men fished; children ran unsupervised in all directions within a mile of that remote cabin.
Each evening before bedtime, all the women-folk would round us up and make one last trip to the outhouse located some thirty yards north of the cabin, but roughly level with the door along the almost vertical incline of the mountainside.
This is the slope so steep that during the day we turned the split log benches slick-side down, held the bark-covered legs for steering and tobogganed down the needle-strewn slaloms at break-neck speeds. Didn’t I tell you we were fearless? And that our lives were charmed?
The narrow path to the outhouse snaked along between the boles of pines, surprisingly smooth from years of wear, cushioned with needles and forcing us to travel single file to and from our destination.
One evening we’d taken our turn at the one-seater and stood shifting from foot to foot, while it seemed to take ages for our older cousins to complete their mysterious attentions to tasks the rest had completed in two seconds. That full-mooned evening we grew tired of waiting, and mosquitoes found us beneath the pines. We deserted Betty Nell, my oldest cousin, who was certainly old enough to find her own way back alone. Even the women said so.
We headed back to the dim glow of the kerosene lantern hung from a hook by the kitchen door. We’d begun to don pajamas and do a final hand-scrub, when the massive log door flung open, and Betty Nell ran in, screaming, “There’s something out there!” Wide-eyed, she slammed the door behind her and dropped the bar into its cradle.
How many people do you know who can describe exactly the enraged scream of a mountain lion that’s just had its nose whacked with a foot-thick log? I can name a few; they are all country folk.
I’ve become a nature advocate, a so-called environmentalist, a conservationist because of my early encounters with the land. I’m passionate about getting children out in the back pastures and along the banks of streams and rivers. They need that down-time to test themselves against their simple fears, to succeed in self-set tasks and challenges. They need the opportunity to learn to love the land, for how can they cherish what they do not love? How can they love what they do not know? How can they know what they have never experienced?
We have an entire generation of children growing up without knowing the outdoors, without knowing the names of the trees and plants and animals around them. They have seen more animals on television than they have in the wild. Most of them have never played with a horny toad or tadpole or seen either in its natural habitat.
We are losing the country at a remarkable rate. “Great!” we say. We can use a little economic prosperity. We welcome the expansion, the new industry, the boom in real estate sales, the development of new schools and opportunities for jobs.
But is there a lesson to be learned from sprawling, uncontrolled development of the past? In our eagerness to embrace prosperity, will we wipe out all the native vegetation? Bring in trees and shrubs that originated in other parts of the world? Plant vast yards of alien grass that is perhaps native to Florida or Africa? And in doing so, wipe out plants that have served as habitat for our local wildlife for thousands of years?
Little ranchitos spring up all over the country, chopping the vast brassada into tiny five-acre plots. Entrepreneurs name their developments “Linda Vista” or “Cenizo Hills;” and the first thing they do is run the bull dozer over every square inch and utterly destroy what the site was named for, destroy forever the natural plants that are ideally suited to our drought-ridden regions—plants that don’t need to be watered every evening, that don’t die with the first heatwave of summer, plants that are providing shelter and food for many species of wildlife.
Before we reduce what were vast acres of rolling hills and native vegetation to tiny, denuded lots that blow away and will erode down to barren limestone, let’s think about the ultimate results. Are we to live in harmony with our world or pave it over to prevent its blowing away?
The logger or developer may fell a tree and cry, “Timber!” But for every tree that falls, there are a dozen little creatures crying, “Home! Home!”
Is there a fallacy in our pathos? John Muir said: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." Aren’t we all ultimately connected to the earth and doesn’t each of us deserve the opportunity to discover that connection?
If there are no stewards of the land in the next generation, who will protect the wild places of the earth?
I worry that my grandsons will not have an intimate tie to the soil, that they will become fastidious and effete, that they will stomp all the spiders in their houses in the Twenty-first Century, and will never know the flavor of rich, red grit, the ice of a mountain stream, or the scream of a truly enraged panther.
Nor will they know any country folk.
All the poets’ metaphors have shifted into the realm
of domestic animals and a few stray birds adapted
to the window ledges of our lives,
the concrete high rises of our frugal geometry. When
we take the measure of man it is without
the yardstick of the beast. We have gone too far
down civil paths, pushed the forests into day-trip party centers
and RV campsites with utilities. But then, then when the bête noir
was other and not self, when the predators
were furred and fanged, we clung together in accord, united
against the beast without. Now there is no defense
against the offspring of our own loins,
this slavering, clawing, unchained, feral child left
on too many hillsides in too permissive a climate to rid us
of our curse. We have strayed too far
from the threat of jungles, Disneyed all the predators
into acceptably adorable creatures, removed the menace
of the unknown.
So when you come to me all bunny soft,
all cuddly cute with claws retracted,
how will I recognize your fangs?