Land of Bears and Honey

[ Regional/Texas ]

Land of Bears and Honey

A Natural History of East Texas

By Joe C. Truett and Daniel W. Lay

The story of the land, wildlife, and ecology of East Texas.

1994

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Paperback

5.5 x 8.5 | 198 pp. | 1 illustration, 6 maps

ISBN: 978-0-292-78134-4

  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface to the Paperback Edition
  • Preface
  • 1. The Virgin Forest
  • 2. Grass
  • 3. Land of Bears and Honey
  • 4. Tooth and Claw
  • 5. Wings
  • 6. Home Is the Hunter
  • 7. Wilderness Trilogy
  • 8. Legacy
  • 9. When the Stars Begin to Fall
  • References
  • Index

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Much has happened in the decade since this book first made its way into the hands of readers. World events by which we measure change have come quickly. Indeed, rapid change has come to permeate our lives.

Among the hills and bottomlands of eastern Texas, changes in the landscape also have accelerated. There is a certain pattern in the kinds of alterations on the land—who owns the land has made a major difference.

We believe that managers of the National Forests, our biggest chunk of public land, have made a turnabout from long-term policy. Silviculture, the farming of the forests for wood output, no longer dominates decisions; management for diversity of plants and animals is wrestling for the wheel. Hardwoods have come of useful age in streamside stands left years ago for wildlife. Redcockaded woodpeckers are coming back in places. Those who plan the future for the public lands look at 1930s maps and talk about what used to be; they speak hopefully of oaks and hickories coming in where pine beetles left holes in solid stands of loblolly.

But on private lands, economics calls the shots, even more than in the past. Following years of government-subsidized conversion of hardwood stands to pine plantations, some timber industries now show a sudden interest in managing for hardwoods, but only because the value of hardwood pulp for fine paper has escalated. Indeed, the increased value of hardwoods now allows owners more profitably to manage bottomland acreage, which is often too wet for pine but fine for oak and gum. Current plans of industry call for cutting hardwood stands every 40 years or less—before the trees produce acorns or hollows sufficient to support much wildlife.

Timber corporations see, more than ever, that closer management is the price they pay to maximize their profits. Some hire wildlife biologists to manage hunting for the remnant game populations on their lands and to help them deal with public opposition to their timber management practices. Many now use herbicides instead of fire to kill the hardwood trees in stands reserved for pine—people grumble less if they can't see smoke. One company seeks legislation to prevent Japan from horning in on its hardwood-chips-for-paper industry. All employ methods to intensify their harvests—cutting trees on shorter cycles, using smaller parts of trees, enlarging monoculture stands.

The profit motive not only drives companies but more and more has come to dominate the lives of individuals. Where once our universities taught students responsibility to society, they now train them in the methods that will help them locate jobs. Jobs command a kind of worship, and in the workplace employees take as gospel truth the printouts from computers that have been programmed to forecast short-term profits.

Profit seeking tempts the small landowner to put pressure on the land. He or she wants to graze a cow or horse, build a rental property, or sell the trees to meet a payment on a car. Hard times amplify these pressures.

Each human generation is still larger than the last. Sons and daughters slice family holdings into parcels that grow smaller over time, and a night flight over rural private acreage shows a growing sea of homefront lights.

Grandaddy made his living from the land with relative impunity, but he had lots of land and simpler tastes. Five acres in our time cannot feed a growing family and have oak trees, deer, and quail to boot.

But the family living on acreage it owns has a better life than most. Being near the land benefits both people and the land. However, we see a growing tendency for most people to live separate from the land, and this bodes ill for both.

A major impact of this separateness arises from the economic motives of the absentee landlord. Many owners live in cities, acquiring pieces of the country as inheritance or for investment. They find it easy in this circumstance to scalp the land for money—they send someone else to cut the trees or build the condominiums, the check comes in the mail, and nothing changes on the map.

People, like the land, suffer when the two are disconnected. Fifty years ago, the variety that people need was met by trees and birds of different kinds and a hundred moods of weather. Now, dangerous city streets, posted land, and unfamiliarity with snakes and bugs keep us from places where natural diversity can still be found. We entertain ourselves indoors—at a dozen shopping malls, by an endless retinue of "products" built to sell, and with television shows that titillate with constant change.

As we harden our addiction to the constructed scenes that come at us with accelerating frequency, we lose interest in the slower-moving natural world. Our urge to know the different kinds of plants and animals, and even our ability to see that they are different, fades. Plants are green, animals are usually brown, and they are harder to spot in the woods than they are on the television screen.

For these reasons, East Texas land increasingly represents to people only income. It yields pleasure to the extent that it provides commodities that build and fuel the world we have builtwood fiber, beef, and residential lots. Managers produce commodities more efficiently in large-scale operations that focus on a single product. The result is increasingly evident: ever larger tree farms, hay pastures, and housing developments.

Wood and beef are increasingly the products of choice for East Texas lands. Once the owner or the manager settles on a product, plants and animals that interfere with its production become weeds. East Texans come from a long line of farmers, and they know what to do with weeds.

Nonetheless, despite the increasing tendency for land to be managed only for commodity production, we have been encouraged by the emergence of individuals who want to curb the impact of the marketplace. Some hold jobs with land resource agencies, others work with industry, and some hold no professional affiliations. Many are young, but some are old. They hold in common a conviction that farming for material gain is not the only legitimate use of land. Under guidance from such people, management of public lands for more diverse ecosystems has assumed greater priority than it previously enjoyed.

Many of these women and men recognize the need to reconnect house-bound people with a more natural landscape. Some work to preserve or restore ecological diversity on public lands; some try to increase the public's access to land; some teach. Informal communications networks have arisen to connect these stewards for the land with one another.

Public attitudes are changing, partly from the efforts of these dedicated people. Taxpayers' objections to using tax money to purchase lands for public enjoyment are fewer than they might have been during the last generation. Old-timers build birdhouses and let odd corners of the back pasture grow up to trees and shrubs. The Federal Endangered Species Act, despite unwarranted abuses of its authority, holds strong against attempts to rescind it.

The information media tell us that few politicians, sports stars, or other public figures believe we are growing too fast and consuming too much. We do know that these notions are important to some people, and throughout history changes often started with convictions at the grass-roots level.

By their very nature, people always will be motivated to some degree to enhance and display their material well-being. Most people, including land managers, will find it tempting to use economic income as the final measure of success. Perhaps this can change—it has come as a surprise to us, for example, that writing this book was one of our most enjoyable, though least economically rewarding, ventures.

We thank the many readers who appreciated the first edition. Your letters and words helped more than you may know. If readers of this second printing find it to have been worth its cost in wood, we will have been amply rewarded.

For when I shall have brought them into the land which I sware unto their fathers, that floweth with milk and honey; and they shall have eaten and filled themselves, and waxen fat; then will they turn unto other gods, and serve them, and provoke me, and break my covenant.

Deuteronomy 31:20

Rain commenced near the Georgia line and the road became mud. The traveler pulled his hat low and kept on, boots sucking at the ground. Water leaked through his coat and trickled down his back. Houses stood by the way, some with other travelers on verandas, waiting out the rain. But the man did not stop.

It was over. Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.

Night came and the rain slacked. The traveler halted to build a fire, using tinder carefully protected in an oilcloth. Steam rose from the legs of his pants and his jacket. He stood before the fire until his clothes dried, then sitting with his back to an oak, he slept. Twice he awoke to rebuild the fire, once at a barred owl's hoot and again near dawn when the chill reached deep.

He was far down the road when the Alabama sun burned through to warm his back. Cotton fields, choked with weeds, flanked him on left and right. The road hardened in the sunlight; he stooped to scrape the last mud from his boots. Blue jays screamed beside a farmyard where white-haired children stared between pickets. Cardinals repeated, mile after mile, "Sample! Sample! Sample! Sample!"

Days later he rafted the flooded Mississippi, then sloshed onward for two more miles before reaching dry ground. Uphill and down, daylight to dark, smaller streams came and fell behind. Late one evening he reached the Sabine River, and camped on the east bank. The fire felt extra good that night. He was nearly home.

At daybreak he swam the river. Climbing out of the bottomland timber, he stopped to scan the ridge ahead. Deer watched from a rifleshot away. They danced over the hill and out of sight as he approached. The odor of hogs lay heavy in a baygall; their vacant bed of pine needles was heaped high beneath wax-myrtle bushes. A turkey gobbled ahead; then a flock of them thundered away like Yankee cannons. Halting to rest beside a spring seeping from the hillside, the man spied a bear track oozing with water.

Near dusk he paused on a high hill. Ahead across the pale green of bottomland timber he traced the course of the Angelina River. Near at hand, on a familiar ridge, a thread of smoke curled above the trees.

Drawing a deep breath, he moved on, more slowly this time. Little had changed. He was home.

***

A century passed, and a boy was growing up in Angelina County. His roots were deep in the pinewoods sand and bottomland clay. His great-great-grandfather lay under the red oaks on the ridge, where you could still dimly see the crossed sabers on the gravestone. Great-grandfather and Great-grandmother were there, too, and Grandma. Grandfather was still alive; he puttered around the house and in the woods.

Grandfather loved to talk. He talked mostly about bears and wolves and panthers, and about the fantastic shots he had made on deer. He talked about the old days and how good it had been back then.

When the boy was young, Grandfather took him into the woods. They hunted squirrels and looked for the rare sign of deer. The man showed the boy where the beech trees bore nuts for the gray squirrels, and where razorback hogs came for acorns in the fall. He pointed to the tracks of raccoons in the bottomlands; to the white geese in fall, winging their way south over the treetops.

Soon the boy walked away from the old man. His legs grew long and he ranged far afield, filling his days and his head with the things Grandfather had taught. Often he wished for bears and panthers.

He flinched at changes in the woods. Log trucks hauled away the beeches, and bulldozers leveled the hickory grove where fox squirrels had come in October. Bermuda grass pastures grew in their places. He shifted his hunting grounds to other woods.

One September morning he packed his clothes, kissed his mother, and took the long road to college. Those first years were hard. Homesickness consumed him at times, usually with letters from home but sometimes unaccountably. Hours in the woods looking for a squirrel to stir from its nest had taught him patience, and he waited.

Two years passed. He packed once again, this time for the first trip home. The bus traveled a day and a night, and when he got off, his father and mother were there at the station. He saw tears in his mother's eyes as she came up for a hug. His father's hand gripped his.

"Welcome home, John." And "My, you've changed!"

They drove the final leg that spring morning, down the narrow highway to the turnoff. They came out of the trees and in view of the home place.

How different it looked! The house was tiny in a huge space. Trees in windrowed piles reached to where the hills dropped to the bottomland. Cattle munched between windrows. Not far away the bottomland itself was covered with water. The new dam, of course.

There were no tears. The boy had learned well.

***

Plants and animals determine the quality of land. But quality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. To a farmer, high quality is more corn and less crabgrass; to a rancher it may be steers, not deer. A child, concerned with the frenzy of anthills and the mystery of cocoons, is unimpressed with cornfields and registered beef. There is only one thing invariably true: for each person quality means a different sum of things, and each will choose, from those things that are available, different ones of them to appreciate.

To maintain for everyone the highest quality in land, then, is to retain options for choice. Our great-grandparents could choose among beavers, bears, and bluestem because they were born in a land where the plants and animals had not been culled by civilized people. But in each succeeding generation some plants and some animals faded out; the options became fewer.

It is our purpose in this book to show what the options were and why they have diminished. It is our hope to suggest how some of what is left might be kept for those yet to come.

The authors of Land of Bears and Honey are both native East Texans. Joe C. Truett heads Truett Research, an organization that investigates the effects of people on the land; for the past twenty-five years he has conducted research on the ecological impacts of human actions. Daniel W. Lay, now a consultant in forestry and wildlife, worked for more than forty years as a wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

"To compare the style and content of this little book to that of the late Aldo Leopold is indeed high praise, yet the reviewer finds this comparison valid, both in content and style.... The book is a gem."
—Quarterly Review of Biology

"This elegant chronicle of the natural history of a once-rich area will appeal strongly to birders, ecologists, to anyone who enjoys the outdoors."
—Publishers Weekly

"In Land of Bears and Honey, East Texans have their own regional Walden, written with keen historical perspectives, literary style, and deep respect for the land."
—Fred Tarpley, East Texas Historical Journal

"...this graceful blend of history, narrative and dialogue paints a noble portrait of one more disappearing chunk of Americana."
—Los Angeles Times Book Review

"...one of the most powerful chronicles of man's destructiveness to come along in many years."
—Southwest Review

1985 Ottis Lock Endowment Award for the best book on East Texas
East Texas Historical Association

1985 Texas Literary Festival Award for Nonfiction
(Southwestern Booksellers Association & Dallas Times Herald)

1984 Annual Publication Award
Texas Chapter of the Wildlife Society