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.

Annual Big Bend Country Pilgrimage

Every year for as long as I can remember, and insofar as I was living in the United States, I have made an annual pilgrimage to the Big Bend Country. My expectations earlier this year were to go with the same company I’d been with the last four years. Alas, life doesn’t quite work out as we expect, does it? The Window
So, this year I decided to take my favorite person in the whole world: I am taking my Mom.

It’s her first time. As a matter of fact, it’s the first time her and I have traveled together since we took my little sister to college in Princeton, New Jersey in 1990. The drive up there was tense, as my sister was ready to get away from us. But on the drive back, Mom and I meandered across America and American history, stopping in Monticello, Gettysburg and a couple of other interesting places, the highlight of which was the Blue Ridge Mountains Trace, a road that follows the peaks of the mountains. Just lovely. But that was a long time ago. Pronghorn Antelope

Mom’s a war horse and damn good traveler. She’s got 15-20 different countries under her belt and she’s going to Cuba in January, so she knows the rules of the road. I’m also looking forward to spending some quality time with her and learning more about her side of the family, mostly aristocratic Italians who fled Italy in the 1870s for Mexico. Classy folks, much unlike the heathen, drunken Irish on my father’s side. Santa Elena Canyon

I’m super excited to share my knowledge of West Texas with her: geology, Indian lore, birds, mammals, stories of cattle rustlers, cowboys and old Judge Roy Bean all make so good bullshit. And we all know I have an absolute profusion of that.

“En Texas, septiembre es el mes quema”

Drought Stricken Field Near Crystal CityI wrote this about the same time last year. And while I am technically two days early, nothing has changed. (Except everything.) Well, and maybe the light: it’s still a scorching, lifeless, dull, enervating gray summer light beating down on us. Perhaps I’ll wake up tomorrow morning and the shifting baseline of reality will have become perceptible. Probably not. You don’t notice a change in the light when you’re thinking about it.

Changed circumstances?

Certainly.

But the light, who pays attention to that? Fools and wanderers, that’s who.

Regardless, my Dantean torments will continue for a while longer. Summer isn’t officially over. Not until September 22 at 4:44PM Eastern Daylight Time.

Nineteen more days of heat like your face melting, dripping on the ground only to be incinerated by the heat of the earth and then blown away as ash by the blast furnace winds coming down from Oklahoma and Kansas.

September is the worst month in Texas because the anticipation hurts more than the reality that relief is so close, but like a man dying of thirst in the desert you can’t tell if its water or mirage until you are right up on top of it.

“En Texas, septiembre es el mes quema,” say the Mexicans.

In Texas, September is the burning month.

A Day In The Life of the Nueces Strip

LaredoIt was hot by the time I pulled out of Hotel La Posada in downtown Laredo, but it’s always hot on the first of September. I took several lefts and rights and meandered through the rigid grid of one-way streets and then hit IH-35 North, put the car in fifth gear and sped off, leaving Starbucks, Palenque Taco, Target and Wal-mart behind for other dangers, like wind-shearing massive rigs on the interstate and hidden DPS officers.

About twenty miles north of Laredo I veered of west onto Highway 83—a road I’d never traveled on. I’d decided earlier at breakfast while looking at my road atlas (I don’t use google maps) to take 83 north towards Catarina and then Carrizo Springs, Crystal City and then take the farm roads on further north to Highway 90 into San Antonio. This is an area of Texas I know little about and most of which I had never been before.

The stretch of land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River was named the Wild Horse Desert by the early Dominican and Franciscan padres who noted the abundance of wild horses while traveling up the King’s Highway to the missions at Bexar and beyond into East Texas and Nacogdoches. Even in 1821 when a heartbroken Mexican lieutenant passed through he noted “vast herds” in his diary. And while there may be no wild horses left in the area it resembles a desert in ever way.

Harris' HawkAs I tear up the road north there is little to see except blue skies, the occasional cloud, and fields full of prickly-pear cactus, desert yaupon, leather stem, purple three awn, goatbush, ceniza, mesquite, tasajillo, huajillo and the occasional desert olive. Not a one is friendly and it’s been fairly said about this part of Texas many times, “if it don’t sting stick or bite it ain’t down there.”

The plains down here roll and so there are long stretches where you are climbing slowly up and hit the crest of a hill and then vast stretches of the desert spread out before you. The desert is splotchy here, like a dog with early onset mange, portions of it are white, like caliche dirt, and others filled with the shrubs and brushes and sticker-burr like-plants aforementioned. Usually, there isn’t much else. But today at one such crest I stopped and counted the natural gas flares: 18 with the bare eye. Had I a pair of binoculars it would have been more. Had it been night I imagine I’d have seen three dozen wells flaring off natural gas, just to get rid of it because its uneconomical to transport.

But what’s most bizarre to me was the feeling of being in the middle of no where—no gas stations, no homes, no ranches, not a hint of sound from oncoming cars—and see multiple huge industrial enterprises out there in the desert. In effect they’ve poked a straw down into the earth and are slurping out the last of the hydrocarbons. It’s the last energy boom we’ll ever see on the planet and I had a front row seat.

Catarina Hotel, ClosedA little while later I stopped in Catarina, a hamlet that has seen better days. I noted that the hotel here was built in 1926, at the tail end of the first great Texas oil boom. I wandered around the tight grid of streets and stumbled upon and old dance hall and hotel as well. Dilapidated and dangerous to walk through my curiosity got the best of me until a large Barn Owl in the rafters knocked some things about and scared the wits out of me as she swooped straight towards me and the exit. That was reason enough to leave Catarina for me. Besides, Barn Owls and I aren’t a good mix, but that’s a story for another day.

A few miles down the road I saw one of the new hotels for the oil field workers and took a photo. Each oil boom has left its own stamp on the region. The first one built places like the Catarina Hotel. The one in the fifties and sixties built small town Texas. And the present boom seems to be leaving nothing behind, except less water or poisoned water. It hasn’t done anything to improve life or business in Carrizo Springs, based on a quick glimpse of the dilapidated old town square.

I drive on past Carrizo into Crystal City. The landscape has changed now and so has the dirt. It’s no longer caliche but something approximating real dirt that can grow sustainable crops. There is a Del Monte plant in town. Big oil has given way to big ag, except when I cross over the Nueces River it’s empty. Ag has taken its portion, but you can be certain fracking has taken an equal if not larger amount. And I mean the river was bone dry. A few further miles down the farm to market road and I hit the Sabinal River. It too is bone dry for the same reason: drought, fracking and agriculture.

Fields are dust. Pecan orchards have died in the withering heat and drought, ongoing since at least 2009. One old boy had cotton, which as a crop is a notorious water hog, but it was a scrawny, mean looking yield he grew this year. And then I hit Highway 90, a road I know well, and made the dash home to San Antonio.
Natural Gas Flare, Outside Cotulla
I’m not real sure what I was looking for today, but after reading “The Son” by Philipp Meyer a few weeks back it was pretty clear that the family at the center of his book found its origins somewhere in the barren, cactus-filled landscape of the Wild Horse Desert. I had it in mind they were a Carrizo Springs family but after passing through Asherton, which is ten miles before Carrizo, and seeing Bel-Asher I’m inclined to think this might be where the family came from. It certainly fits geographically speaking.

Of course, that’s why we read—to learn new things, ideas, and to hear old stories told in a new way. Maybe sometimes those old stories take on a life of their own when you wake up in Laredo, looking out across the river to Mexico and decide to take a new road home. New books and new roads. Someone ought to write something about that.

On John Graves and “Goodbye to a River”

I could wax all night on John Graves, just as I could Charles Bukowski. One a gentleman and a soldier, the other a drunken, fist-fighting postman. Neither have much in common except two things: I wanted to meet both but never did and I was affected strongly on the day each died. Bukowski passed in 1994 shortly after I graduated from university. John Graves passed away earlier today.

Graves was most noted for his 1960 book “Goodbye to a River.” As a book, or “text” as the Euros call it, it meant a great deal of something very complicated to me mostly because of when I read it and how I came to read it. I was 40 when I first read it and was still living under the illusion I had a bit of my youth yet. And then I read “Goodbye to a River,” written at a time when Graves had come home from years of travel, finally settled down and took one last trip down the river of his youth, the Upper Brazos (mine is the upper Nueces, but that is another story). The book moved me deeply, in ways I didn’t understand. In ways I was unprepared to understand, (my wife saw how it changed me and it scared her).

I re-read it a year later and then it all came to me. Graves’ book, “Goodbye to a River” is about a man saying goodbye to his youth and accepting middle age, jsut as much, if not more than it was a man saying goodbye to a river that might soon be damned up beyond oblivion (it never was). It’s a truth I’m still not willing or ready to accept, but it’s a truth no less. I wrestle with it daily.

I wish I had met Graves. I fancy he would have liked me, might have seen a bit of the rogue and raconteur of his own younger self in me, but it was not to be.

Today the author of a book most dear to me died and for that, I am sad. I leave you with a bit of his prose, a little bit of what he taught me, hoping I might relearn:

“But in truth such gravities were not what salted the tales I could read, looking off over the low country from the point atop the bluffs. Mankind is one thing; a man’s self is another. What that self is tangles itself knottily with what his people were, and what they came out of. Mine came out of Texas, as did I. If those were louts, they were my own louts. Origin being as it is an accident outside the scope of one’s will. . . if a man can’t escape what he came from, we would most of us still be peasants in Old World hovels. But if, having escaped or not, he wants in some way to know himself, define himself, and tried to do it without taking into account the thing he came from, he is writing without any ink his pen.” ~John Graves “Goodbye to a River”

There was something always comforting knowing Graves was up in Glen Rose, still alive and breathing, as if his very dignitas would hold the craziness of Texas together a bit longer. But no more. All the good ones are now gone.

And me, well, I’m home, in Texas for now, and my pen is full. Let there be an accounting of what I am. John Graves will be missed.

Great Valley Birding Trip

The Brunette are heading down to the Lower Rio Grande Valley this week for our spring break.

Here are the place we’ll be staying: El Rocio Retreat, Mission Texas, Chachalaca Inn, Los Fresnos, Texas, Alamo Inn, Alamo Texas.

And here are some of the parks we’ll be visiting: Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Las Palomas Unit, Boca Chica State Park, Palo Alto Battlefield, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park.

Our target list includes the following birds for The Brunette: Green Jays, Brown Jay, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Orioles, both Hooded and Audobon’s, White-collared Seedeater.

For me: Green Jays, Brown Jay, Rose-throated Becard, Tropical Parula

It appears as if I have become a serious twitcher. How’d that happen?

Caracara In A Cold Mine

Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway)

The bird migrations this year tell me one thing in particular: we’re in for a very screwed up winter down here in Texas. First, the warblers came early and have by and large lingered long. Northwest Park in Austin, where I walk many mornings during the week, is not known as a migrant trap. But many of the original migrants this year have set up camp there. Plus, there have been warbler sightings all across Texas that are very uncommon, birds have popped up in places like Houston and Austin that have no business being there. Palm Warblers in Austin and multiple sightings of Black-throated Blue Warblers in Houston (a bird that has no business ever being this far West). Several Hutton’s Vireos spotted outside San Antonio–another rarity. I, myself, even spotted a Black-headed Grosbeak in Central Austin, which is a rarity inside the city, just two weeks ago.

The sparrows showed up two weeks early and in force. We’ve a huge group in the backyard–close to thirty that are competing with the over abundant White-winged Dove and Blue Jays. I’ve watched three and four sparrows at a time harry the Blue Jays away from food–and Jays are not unaggressive birds. Now, Jays are great mimics of raptors (and I’ve watched them run off Red-tailed Hawks from the big Oak Tree in the backyard twice). There is now one Jay–the alpha of a gang of eight–who will fly in from afar, perch high up in the Oak Tree like a raptor and mimic him, scaring off all the sparrows and dove. All of these are behaviors that are no doubt drought induced.

Other species of sparrows–White-throated Sparrows especially–have arrived very early as well, usually flying into the area in November. Flickers have pushed in to the areas around Austin early too, more highly unusual behavior. Juncos are in Central Texas and along the coast. We rarely get Scrub Jays in Austin but there have been multiple sightings of them around town and in local parks, and Scrub Jays compete directly with local Blue Jays.

Now, this may mean nothing to you. But birds and their behaviors do foreshadow environmental events. The general consensus is that early migrations portend a veery cold and very dry winter, which syncs with the La Nina conditions we’re still enduring. Just consider this another bit of anecdotal evidence that weather patterns are seriously amiss.

We’re are, however, so divorced from the behavior of our animal neighbors presently that we no longer notice what they are telling us.

Drought and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja)This may seem a rather peaceful, edenic-looking photo. Trust me, it’s not. This pond is withering away rapidly. I’ve never seen it this low my entire life. It’s easily three or four times lower than it should be. It’s highly saline and the spoonbill feeding in it is a stressed animal, which should normally have a relatively different color set this time of year, a brighter, almost magenta hue to it’s pinkish wings.

This is going on all around the Coastal Bend this year. Salt levels are three hundred percent higher than normal in the bays (think of them as giant estuaries). Blue crab populations are collapsing. Oyster catches are falling and on and on. A large fight is shaping up between environmentalist and chemical companies. There is so little fresh water flowing into the bays–much of it being used for fracking, refining and very necessary agriculture upriver that the survival in the wild of the last flock of Whooping Cranes is once again being called into question.

In an average year a visitor should see at least twenty to thirty different species of birds in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. I was exceptionally lucky to have seen only ten. There should be kites and kestrels and caracaras all along the roads, perched on the telephone poles hawking field animals running around in the cotton fields. But not this year. Cotton yields on the Coastal Bend are well below normal and the crop was harvested a month early. There should be swarms of orioles, both Bullock’s and Baltimores in the trees eating the abundant early fall berries. There should be herons and egrets and pipers and all other manner of shore birds. There should be warblers galore: Nashville Warblers, Prothonotary Warblers, Black-and-Whites, Canadians etc. . There were few, if any.

Of course, one benefit to the deep plowing farmers are doing (they plow and turn over the soil deeply to catch the meager rains when they come) are the bugs which leads to a lot of flycatchers. But other than that? Nothing. What happens once all those bugs have been eaten?

Destroy the bottom of the foodchain and you also destroy the top of it.

Cattlemen in the Coastal Bend are deeply culling their herds. We saw few cattle and the ones we did were drought stressed, thin and the absence of cattle egrets was palpable. The drive from Rockport to the Refuge was a surreal concatenation of dried marshes, brown reeds and bone dry creek beds, normally full of water and meandering languidly down to the bays. Sure, it was humid. But it was also 104* degrees there Sunday. That’s simply too hot this time of year, with a strong wind coming in from the Gulf every gets dried out even more. Everything is dying.

I was in no way prepared for what I saw down there this year. It was brutal and gut wrenching.

Light

Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Or maybe it just happened that suddenly. The last time I was in Austin was August 30. I went down to San Antonio to see my father for a few days, hang out, catch up, eat some fresh drum and speckled trout from Baffin Bay.

It’s still frightfully hot–101* today and 100* yesterday. It’s not going to abate any time in the next ten days, either.

But while I was outside a few moments ago, watering and feeding the birds I saw it: there was an edge to the light, just the hint of the equinoctial: the blue a bit bluer and the clouds running across the sky with an almost mirror-like reflectiveness.

Gone was the bleached out, fiery, white-washed sky.

It’s the kind of light that reminds me summer is almost over and that cool air will begin arriving from Canada soon.

For that I am grateful.

Rural Depopulation

The People's ChoiceOne of the themes from Joe Bageant’s memoirs, Rainbow Pie, that struck me as fascinating, was his description of rural folks leaving the country and moving in to medium and large sized towns. This is largely what happened to my father’s side of the family, as they left the Hill Country after WWII, but to this day I still have a very strong emotional attachment to the land and people there.

The standard narrative is that this was the triumph of industrial capitalism moving small farmers off the land into real, prosperous jobs. Ask Susan Broussard and her husband what they think of that narrative and you’ll get a rich snort of derision.

I’ve been crossing Texas for a week. I began in Laredo Sunday and what I’ve seen is nothing less than the wholesale devastation of our small towns. We laud small town values as a matter of public religion, but don’t value small towns at all. Wal-Mart is only the latest assault on small town America. After seeing what I’ve seen the last few days I can really understand why people in “flyover” country hate the government. It does nothing for them, except push them further away from the land, after, of course, it has nickled and dimed them to death with lots of small fees and surcharges and surly bureaucrats. Not to mention agricultural regulations that defy common sense, prop up mega-industrial scale agriculture and destroy small farms. (I’ll post at some point my conversations with Don Henry Ford, Jr. about this and much more.)

Moreover I have been dutifully searching for any small, homestead farmers in rural areas. They don’t exist, outside of one African-American farmer I stopped to talk to outside of Crockett. (He was uncomfortable with photos for good reason. This area of Texas ain’t terribly enlightened.) Today as I pass through more of rural Texas I will endeavor to find and talk to more small farmers.

But back to Joe Bageant. If you look at this photo and read the sign you’ll note something very fascinating. In 1916 taxpayers banded together to build a rural school. That’s rather anodyne, but what isn’t is the year the school closed: 1949. That’s pretty close to the era when Joe Bageant’s family left their small farmstead in rural Virgina for “a better life and work” in the city. It was, as Joe so eloquently wrote, neither better nor much work.

In many rural places the only thing propping up the local economy are chicken farms (note the mobile homes for migrant labor), oil and gas fracking, which only benefits out of town roughnecks and landowners, prisons and old folks homes. We dump our old people in rural communities now because of perverse medicaid incentives.

Not only did this happen in places like Virginia, but also in Texas, ad most certainly in your state.

The first is to halt the decline of rural America. Until then we can’t really talk about restoring it. Are there any solutions?

First, we need better land use policies by large cities, create more urban living, instead of sub and ex-urban incentives. Land use policies also help with watersheds, flooding and even global climate change. The amount of good, fecund agricultural land that has been destroyed by ex-urbanization is criminal and I fear something that has the potential to haunt a globally hotter climate.

We need to change, on a state and federal level, agricultural policy to better benefit smaller farmers and loosen regulations that discourage real farmer’s markets.

The estate tax doesn’t really apply to small farmers, but we can tinker around the edges to make mid-sized farms become more profitable as well, and better able to be bequeathed. I don’t even know where to begin on subsidies. They seem geared towards supporting mega-farmers, anyhow.

A change of rural property taxes based on the agricultural value of land, not based on wealthy suburbanites coming into the country for a tax-write off for exotic game ranches and weekend country homes. The value of the rural land has been inflated out of all proportion to its productive value. And this practice of plopping a dozen cattle on land owned by rich individuals and claimed as agricultural land as a tax write off needs to stop.

So why do rural Americans continue to vote against their own economic interests? I would have to say the most important answer to that question is clearly attachment to a community, no matter how much pressure it is under. Prisons and “retirement centers,” among other inducements, creates a nexus of perverse rural incentives.

Of course, as the above photo of the school shows clearly: education matters too.