Deserts Aren’t Supposed to Be Green

Crazy Rain, Fort Davis, TexasI’ve never seen Trans-Pecos Texas so green. I’m 43 years old and admittedly I’ve been coming out to the Big Bend area since my late twenties so that’s not a very good statistical sample.

Be that as it may: I’m glad that the West of Texas isn’t in hardcore drought like it has been in years passed. I’m also glad to see just about every creek and river on my route for Fort Davis in good health. All except the Pedernales. That river is just dead. Good job Austin!

Here is a link to the Drought Monitor.It’s current for Texas. Look at the area worst hit in Central Texas. That’s pretty much most of San Antonio’s watershed. Except we get most of our water from an underground aquifer and so we won’t see the effect of this drought for a year and we won’t see the recharge, when it comes, for a year.

I hadn’t realized how bad a year Texas was having until I looked at the details. 59% of the state is currently in moderate to exceptional drought status. Three months ago it was 72% and a year ago it was 89%. That’s bad. It isn’t California bad, but we had California’s bad drought in 2010-2011. Relief is expected over the next few months as well as Texas’ traditional September rains arrive. California, I am very sorry to say, is fucked. Another reason Texas can soon expect more Californians to come live here. 

In retrospect, I suppose my comments about healthy creeks and rivers don’t mean diddly-squat. Still, I’ve never seen the area around Fort Davis so green. I can only imagine what Big Bend National Park looks like? It must be amazing, Ocotillo in bloom all over the place? Prickly-pears of all different colors blossoming in the desert? I wish I’d had time to drive down there but it’ll have to wait until later in the year, if I get back out west at all. I might have some research work overseas during the winter break so we’ll see.

I took a detour about three hours out of San Antonio and headed south across Terrell County through the Pecos River canyonlands. I drove across Independence Creek, filled with insanely glorious water. Water so clear it made me want to drink it. Water so clear it made me want to take my sandals off and get my feet wet, walk up and down the creek for a while like I used to when I was a kid.

Of course, it made sense, looking at the water, why landowners are so protective of entry and exit into the Devil’s River (which is on the other side of the Pecos River canyonslands): open that river up to tourism and it’ll be wrecked in two years, even to the most responsible tourists. Industrial tourism has a way of doing that–and no, I am not one to talk. Some places are better off with a conservation easement but no public access. Some places are just better off left alone.

Some places should remain wild.

Then I drove down into Sanderson Canyon, stopped in Sanderson itself for gas and water and chips and then drove on, eager to drive up out of the canyon onto the Marathon Uplift, as they call it geologically. I fiddled around in the road-cuts along the way, messing around in the rocks like a boy. Then, a few miles outside of Sanderson Canyon it all changes. I call it the most gorgeous view in all of Texas, purple mountains and golden grass filled with pronghorns and cattle and the occasional elk.

Except this time it was green.

Beautiful, yet green.

Compare the view atop the Davis Mountains looking south and east just three days ago, and the view on December 29, 2013.

Same place, damned different colors.

Deserts aren’t supposed to be green.

It rained an awful lot, which feels bizarre in Fort Davis. Clouds obscured the skies at the McDonald Observatory so no Star Party, which was why I came out here in the first place. I did get four solid days of daydreaming before the rigors of scholarship begin. Four days to let my brain do nothing but follow the monkey mind wherever it led. Four days of food, fresh air, wild critters and the occasional bird or two.

If you are so inclined you can check out all the photos here:

Green or not: get yourself out to the Big Bend area and the Davis Mountains. It’s the best country Texas has to offer, and country is something we still have a whole hell of a lot of.

Better Than Ezra

MuralI’m reading another book on post-modernism.

I know, I know, why am I torturing myself like this?

Well, I think it’s critically important to understand the philosophical underpinnings of our age, even if most of us (me included) walk around accepting them and seeing them and acting in accordance to them without really understanding them.

Plus, post-modernism has an element of fundamental weirdness to it: just ask any philosopher or literary or art critic what it is and you’ll get different definitions. Even worse, in order to understand just what post-modernism is, you have to understand what modernism was, which poses its own challenges. One of those challenges being the complicated place Ezra Pound holds in the pantheon of modernism.

When Ezra Pound said, “Make it new,” most writers and critics nowadays, in the present, meaning circa 2014, interpret it as a battle cry to turn the old order over, and start new. In a sense, most people see Pound’s call as a cry for destruction, like Shiva the Destroyer, and then Brahma the creator to rebuild the temple of civilization with literature and art and architecture. A perpetual revolution of the arts.

But this is not what Pound meant. Not remotely. Pound, when he said, “make it new,” meant to take the old verities, truths, stories, fables, myths, buildings and paintings and make them new—not destroy them but mold the stories into a modern context.

For example, take the Canadian author Margaret Atwood. She does this extremely well in “The Penelopiad,” the Odyssey told from a woman’s point of view, but not just any woman. She tells it from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife.
Found Poetry
Or read Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which tell the tale from many new angles, characters silenced in the original.

There is also the fine poet Patricia Smith who retells the story of Medusa.

Yes, all these are literary examples, but how about pop-culture? Easy enough: “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?” the Coen brothers Depression Era take on the Odyssey. These are the true inheritors of Pound’s great battle cry, ‘make it new.’

In his great olive branch of a poem Pound came to Whitman as a contrite grown child:

It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root -
Let there be commerce between us.

Even Louis Menand agrees, as he writes in the New Yorker: “The “It” in “Make It New” is the Old—what is valuable in the culture of the past.”

I personally like it when old stories are told anew, but I’m weird that way.

What’s even more bizarre is that not only am I beginning to understand and intuit post-modernism, I actually kind of like it. That’s certainly not something I thought I would ever say or write.

Diario de la carretera

I arrive, disembark and enter the massive hall the Mexicans call “TAPO,” the bus station serving the southern states of Veracruz, Tabasco, Campech, Yucatan and Quintana Roo. I find a taxi, negotiate a price to the north station and speed off.
Between Mexico City and Queretaro
“So, where are you going?” asks Sergio, the taxi driver. He’s a slight man, handsome in that Mexican way with little if any Indian blood, lightly mestizo, small nose, thin lips and greenish eyes behind round wire-rimmed glasses.

“I don’t know,” I reply, “probably Nuevo Laredo. I’ve been traveling for several weeks and it’s time to get home.”

“And where is that?”

“San Antonio, Texas.”

“If you like, stop in Queretaro on your way. It is my home town and I must tell you: it is old and beautiful,” he says, a smile beaming from the rear view mirror.

“Is there an Executive Class bus that goes there? And that goes from there to Laredo,” I ask.

“But of course, Queretaro is an important Mexican city. Many large corporations are there. Colgate, GE, Michelin, Samsung. It is very modern too.”

“I might do that,” I tell him.

He drops me at the north station and I wander inside. It is 3:30 PM. I have been traveling since 4:30 PM the previous day. A stop in Queretaro sounds great at this point.

A shower?

Food?

Relaxing walks in the old colonial streets Sergio described?

The next bus north leaves at 4:00 and I can be in Queretaro by 6:30 this evening or in Nuevo Laredo by 11:30 AM the next day.

An easy choice.
Mural
On the bus I meet Rodrigo—his cousin owns a little hostel on the outer edge of the old town. It seemed foreordained. Rodrigo calls his cousin, whose name turns out to be Juan Pablo and makes a reservation for me.

Looking out the window the landscape has changed subtly. The road cuts are of deep, soft volcanic soil. This is the rich, fertile core of the great Meso-American plateau.

Maize predominates, of course, but there is wheat and other grains and vegetables everywhere: each field bordered by rock fences and all that they imply: permanence, peasants and tradition. It is a gently rolling landscaped sculpted by the eons of annual rain that threatens to begin at any moment.

There is also the small matter of the light: gentle, slanting, almost Tuscan. I can see why my great-great grandfather settled in the area, he must have felt at home. On days like this I understand why he picked Mexico to settle.

The highways are full of buses and trucks, just as the earlier drive. I pass a restaurant with a polar bear holding a clock on the roof. Is this irony, sarcasm, a warning or just the crazy sense of humor of some random Mexican?
Aqueduct
The bus descends into a valley, an aqueduct to the north and in the south a pair of skyscrapers that would be more appropriate in China or Singapore greet my entrance to Queretaro.

The taxi to my hotel costs three dollars and the traffic in the old colonial streets is abysmal, but I arrive just in time: the sun is setting.

The Blue Bicycle House sits on a hill and the view is all old world: aqueducts, pastels, the steeples of a hundred churches and shimmering dusk lights running up hills draped in the hues of a perfectly pink sunset.

You know, the shower wasn’t half bad either.

6 Agosto, Diario de Camino


Queretaro was not a place I’d ever thought I’d visit and yet here I am—and that is a story I will get to in a bit. Yesterday, the 5th of August, was one of those days where everything came together—the magnificent drive from Orizaba (Mexico’s big brewing town) up into the Sierra Madre Oriental, the chain of mountains that runs roughly parallel to the Gulf Coast. I’d boarded the bus the afternoon before at 430 in Chetumal, on the Caribbean Coast of Mexico, at the southern end of the Yucutan.

I’d slept most of the night and woke up just outside Orizaba. At this point, my plan was still get to Mexico City and catch the first bus to Nuevo Laredo, walk across the bridge and catch the first Greyhound home. But for the long drive up Sierra Madre Oriental full of blue skies and lush green mountains I would have. The Gulf Coast is terribly hot and humid but once I began the climb it breaks. After a month of inland Belize heat I had no interest lingering. The mountains here are semi-tropical with deciduous trees dominating until half way up and then the conifers show up. The valleys are impossible—filled with switchback after switchback, large 18-wheelers resembling insects thousands of feet below. I’m pretty sure the towering snow clad behemoth I saw was Malinche, named after the Cortes’ famous interpreter and later wife. As I crest the mountains I’ve arrived on a broad upland plateau that’s almost semi-arid, deceptive-like, but not. To me it resembled the Motagua Valley in Guatemala. But then I saw fields of golden flowers, agaves, century plants and maize everywhere.

I speed past restaurants called “Benedicion” and “Esperanza” and “Dolores Milagro,” the Catholicism runs deep here. And then I speed past towns with names like Huixcolotla, Acatzingo and Tlaxcala and the Nauhua runs deep here too, especially with Tlaxcala, the red city, city of treachery, the great unconquered nemesis of the Aztecs and Cortes’ best allies. Had they not allied with Cortes there would have been no Conquest.

And then my mind wandered, lost in random thought. But the fields persisted: perfect rows of maize bordered by prickly pears or agave, sitting between crystal clear streams running down to the Rio Panuco and cypress lined dirt roads that wooden shacks made of tin roofs and some cinder block lead to. Shepherds punctuate a landscape of lumbering volcanoes obscured by clouds, ready to erupt at any moment.

The high plateau ended as it must. I begin climbing downslope to the Great Valley of Mexico, having taken Cortes’ route. I turned a switchback and then the entire valley came into view. Bernal Diaz’s words, one of Cortes’ soldiers, were never more apt, “And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and the other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded. . . It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.”

What a world was lost by the Conquest.

More soon . . . in the meantime, photos can be found here.

Field School Update #3

Monday begins the fourth and final week of the Belize archeology field school. It has been three weeks of backbreaking manual labor. Hard work, much harder than I expected. On Monday my digging technically ended. I am now in the lab analyzing the hoard of ceramics we excavated.

As I know nothing of Mayan ceramics it’s been a crash course in black, red or orange slips, polychrome, rim diameters and paste and firing. I can now distinguish between Mt. Maloney Late Classic I, II, and Terminal. Add to that a lot of Belize Red Ash Ware, a boatload of Cayo Unslipped (huge elegantly curved jars) the occasional Alexander’s Unslipped, Meditation Black, Dolphin Head Red, Garbutt Creek and a few others and I’m actually learning.

On the last active day of digging our efforts were interrupted by a troupe of Howler Monkey’s who came in to inspect what we were doing. Eight monkeys just swinging from the trees right above our excavated units, tossing poop into them and peeing where ever they wanted to. One almost pissed on my dig partner. He’s a douchecanoe and would have deserved it. (I don’t make it a habit to slag on people and being that he is not here to defend himself I will leave my comments at that.)

Random thoughts: having spent the better part of three weeks digging around the innards of a Mayan pyramid I am not terribly impressed with their architectural prowess. (And aliens were most certainly never involved.) It’s very rudimentary and ad hoc architecture. We excavated part of the south side medial terrace. We were looking for and found what they call ‘construction pins,’ which serve as a kind of support pier to keep the downward thrust of the pyramid from imploding. There are two critical aspects to architecture: form and function. As to function: they do what they are supposed to do and have held up well, but as the form of architecture goes they’re ugly and asymmetrical.

Another weird thing about Mayan pyramids, or “city groups” in general: they are accretive and never symmetrical. Few were built in just one building spree like contemporaneous works, take the Samanid mausoleum for example. Elegant, symmetrical and nothing ad hoc about it.

One thing I am aware of every time I dig here in Belize is that the Mayan’s had no metal weapons, nor did they have beasts of burden like the horse. This had a lot to do with the construction techniques they employed. There are no large dressed stones like the pyramids in Egypt. Every stone in this pyramid could have been carried by one man. And the labor that went into their construction?

The heat is abominable. I am going to sleep in a refrigerator when I return home. The humidity is terrible too.

It’s been an interesting experience, alas, what little curiosity I had in the Maya has been fully satisfied. I’m a desert guy. Jungles are too hot, have too many bugs and are way too loud. There is never any silence in the jungle. Nothing like the silence you find in the desert for sure.

You can find the photos and videos of the Howler Monkey invasion here.

Enjoy!

Belize Update Plus a Few New Photos


The digging continues, more so with a trowel than shovels now. Although when we work on the steps of the East slope we do some shoveling. Most of my work is on the South Slope of El Castillo, the main pyramid of the Xunantunich complex.

The heat is unrelenting, although at about 1130 every day a nice breeze whips around the pyramid and cools us. But the nights are brutal. My room is like a blast furnace. Top bunk sucks. Heat rises. No A/C and the fans are less than useful.

Alas, I am learning a great deal.

More soon. Enjoy some new photos! Only a few but we did discover some interesting pottery this week.

New Photos from Belize and Stuff

Here are the photos.  

It is hot.

The days are long. They start at 530. They end at 400.

It is 95*. I shovel and basically move about a couple dozen wheelbarrows full of dirt off the pyramid every day.

It is exhausting. That is all. 

Bus Stations

They stink, as in smell bad, the world over. Not horrible, but a combined human funk. So it goes . . .

The Road Beckons

Xunantunich's western friezeTomorrow morning I catch the southbound bus to Laredo at 900.

I’ll arrive in Laredo about 1145, walk across the border at International Bridge #1, take the city bus to the new primera classe bus station and catch the first available to Mexico City.

After that, who knows? I have to be in Belize on July 5th, which makes zipping across the Yucatan a tight schedule.

I’ll then be in Belize working on an archaeological dig for 25 days. I will leave August 1 for the Pacific Coast of Mexico.

And then, who knows?

I suspect you’ll be getting a boatload of posts on the ancient Mayans.

This is the best place to keep up with me while I am away.

True Detective

Y’all know I try to stick to the books, right? Of course, every now and then I get hooked on a television show. I have my personal favorites like Californication, Justified, Grimm (guilty pleasure) and The Wire, which I seem to watch over again at least every two years. On the flight home from Istanbul, about an hour and half before landing in Houston I tuned into HBO’s first episode of True Detective. I only got half of the first episode because we were beginning our initial descent, but I was hooked.

Yesterday afternoon at about 530 pm I completed the first season.

I needed close to 24 hours to process what I witnessed. I will not give anything away. You must watch this show. Period.

yellow_king.jpeg.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge

Although I won’t say anything about the plot, the character development of the show most reminds me of Dostoevskii’s greatest novel, “Crime and Punishment” in its ferocious darkness. Obsessively shining a light where none ever need be shone.

Преступление и наказание (Crime and Punishment) was simply relentless. The point wasn’t the plot, because in the the end we all know Raskolnikov killed the old lady. The point was Raskolnikov’s soul and its consummate exploration. This is what True Detective did. And with eight episodes it had the rare luxury to explore the souls of two male leads.

I have no doubt that the first season or series of True Detective will go down as the best television series ever made. It’s better than House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Mad Men, Justified, Game of Thrones, Rome, The Wire, The Sopranos, Californication, Homeland, and Dexter plus anything else you care to throw at the TV Guide, combined. The acting is impossible to describe and it’s impossible to say in the end who does a better job: Woody Harrelson or Matthew McConaughey. The psychic distance alone each actor has grown is testament in itself. Consider, Woody Harrelson began acting as the doofus barback in Cheers. Matthew McConaughey was the pretty boy for about twenty rom-coms in the 1990s-into the early aughts.

If they gave an Oscar for TV they would have to share it. Affecting and moving acting by both men.

And Michelle Monaghan is the emotional anchor of the entire series and for both men: talk about unsung acting jobs. Wow. Her’s was not a star’s role, but she made it one: complete and centered, the equal of both men.

The show is that good and that dark and that awful and that powerful and that mesmerizing and that uncontrollably shudder inducing. And more.

In fact, you are doing yourself a disservice if you do not watch it.