A classic since its first publication in 1947, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist distills a lifetime of patient observations of the natural world.
Series: Texas Classics
A classic since its first publication in 1947, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist distills a lifetime of patient observations of the natural world. This reprint contains a new introduction by noted nature writer Rick Bass.
- Introduction by Rick Bass
- Author's Introduction
- 1. Fences: Fields and Pastures
- 2. Fences: Right-of-Ways
- 3. Still Water
- 4. The Wing Of The Swallow
- 5. Killers
- 6. A Bird and a Flower
- 7. "Co-Operatives"
- 8. "Co-Operatives" (continued)
- 9. Denatured Chickens
- 10. Davis Mountains Holiday: En Route
- 11. Davis Mountains Holiday: In Camp
- 12. The Golden Eagle
- 13. The Golden Eagle: Soarer
- 14. Nature Lore in Folklore
- 15. Folk-Naming of Birds and Flowers
- 16. The Mockingbird: Character and Disposition
- 17. Mockingbird: Singer
- 18. Mockingbird: Does He Mock?
- 19. Heronry on Keller's Creek
- 20. Nest Hunger
- 21. Root and Rock
- 22. Cedar Cutter
- The Author's Emendations
I begin this "year's leave" hoping to reduce to some order quite a lot of notes which, at the moment of their jotting down, seemed to me to have more than temporary interest. At my elbow is a huge wastepaper basket and, near by, a fireplace to relieve the container as congestion occurs. When all is said and done and published I know that I shall regret not having made more generous use of these facilities.
My friends call it "going on leave," or "temporary retirement," and treat me as if I were on a vacation. "You have plenty of time now," they say, "so why don't you"... And here follows an array of thus-and-sos—"now since you have nothing else to do you can read," or "fish," or "travel," or "garden"—in short, do whatever my adviser of the moment would like himself to do.
The sights, sounds, odors, and, especially, the feel of this place stimulate in me memories so warm and intimate that taking up residence here seems more like a homecoming than an escape.
I first thought of going away, but feared the distracting influences of an unfamiliar environment. Why not travel a bit—take to the open road? I have a camp car especially equipped to back up my scorn of hotels, tourist camps, and other commercial accommodations. But I resisted this allurement, feeling sure that I would get more done of the thing I wanted to do by facing a typewriter and staying put until the job was finished. I therefore chose to settle myself in the section of Texas in which I feel most at home. Better work in proved territory, I concluded, than end up, as so many wildcatting oil drillers do, with a dry hole. I was never much of a gambler.
The time and the place settled, I next prescribed for myself a year alone, or, at least, as nearly alone as was practicable. "My mind to me a kingdom is" whose government is thrown out of order—sometimes into a state of anarchy—by too frequent contacts with my kind. When I took up the receiver to answer that last call on January 31, my face had none of the smiling complacency which rests upon faces chosen to embellish the advertisements of the telephone company. The excited voices of news casters trying to incite me to action for which I have no stomach, shouting headlines, and circular appeals from do-good organizations, all left me cold. The morning mail looked like it weighed a ton.
"But surely you want somebody around." No, no one at all. "Not a cook?" Certainly not. I am a cook of parts myself, and no cook in the world is as anxious to please his master as I am to please mine. Besides, with what face can a mere boardinghouse philosopher give suggestions on cooking, dishwashing, and housekeeping generally, advance notice of which is hereby given?
"No one to clean up—not even once a week?" No, again. I can redd up this room in less than ten minutes, not, it is true, to meet the critical eye of a rival housekeeper, but to satisfy "minimum essentials." The unsympathetic observer might call the operation "a lick and a promise."
No, indeed, no. No one to cook, no one to clean up, wash the dishes, and put the things away. My little household duties amuse me and furnish a refuge in reality, which the visionary needs. "Doing my own chores" gives me a sense of independence and of satisfaction in doing my share of the dirty work of the world. If everyone cleaned up his own messes there would be no household drudges. "Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law." This rule of conduct is greatly simplified in solitude.
"But company?" Never fear, you have plenty of that; and I like it, since it comes in moderation. I find that if you make yourself sufficiently inaccessible, you set up a screen which lets through only the most desirable particles. To this writing I have not been subjected to a single bore. My one door has not yet opened upon an uninteresting or an unwelcome guest.
When the cotton was laid by in June, we used to make a covered-wagon trip due west from the edge of the great blackland prairies where I was reared to a point on the Colorado River eighteen miles west of Lampasas. Following the first night's camp on the Leon and continuing our journey, we soon gained sight in the morning sun of broken hills covered with cedar and live oak. To my eyes, which rarely saw a tree except in yards and in creek bottoms, this vast stretch of tree-covered country was a new world opening up like a veritable miracle.
Nor have these eyes by greener hills
Been soothed, in all my wanderings.
We stayed about a month, returning home in time for early cotton picking.
As we left the Leon going west out of Belton for our next camp on the Lampasas River, we were traversing the Edwards Plateau, a rugged area whose wet-weather creeks ran in "riffles" over polished boulders, or stayed awhile in blue "holes," or plunged recklessly from ledge to ledge of clean limestone shelving. I was accustomed to dirt "tanks" and to Deer Creek, Elm Creek, and the Cow Bayou, all sluggish and slimy, often clogged with debris, tributaries of the Brazos, whose drowsy current, after it leaves the hill country, always reminds me of dirty dishwater. So hills and trees, clear streams with splashing waterfalls, bluffs which to a prairie lad seemed mountainous, all presented a fresher world, and certainly nearer a boy's idea of heaven than the summer's dust and winter's mud of my native blackland. This great plateau comprises about one eighth of the area of the entire state; and, although I have lived most of my life around its edges, my heart has been in the highlands.
Hence I chose the Edwards Plateau for my year of stocktaking. A friend offered me sanctuary in a great rock house on a small ranch of his in Bear Creek Valley, which is an indentation of the escarpment dividing the plateau from the prairies eastward. It is several miles from a highway, situated, as the plains editor said of his home town, "in the center of the surrounding country"—a goat-and-deer country, rich in browsing, and, viewed extensively on a clear day, near and far, mottled with the contrasting greens of cedar and of several species of oak—billowy rise after rise growing ever more purplish and smoky in the distance until they finally blur vaguely into an indefinite horizon.
The house was built near a century ago as a school for boys, is L-shaped, fronts south, is two stories with limestone walls three feet thick, giving it more the appearance of a fortress than of a school or residence. Mine is a second-story room, twenty-two by twenty-three feet, with four windows, each as wide as a barn door: two south, exposing Bear Creek Valley with Friday Mountain just beyond, and two north, looking up a slope crowned by pioneer stock pens, log cribs, and sheds scattered about among giant live oaks. This room has three walls of limestone,—roughhewn blocks, presenting countless irregular nicks and niches, slopings, and miniature precipices. The other wall is a flimsy partition against which I have put bookcases to cover just as much of it as possible.
I found myself concerned with the looks of my room. I didn't want it spick and span, and still it must not look as if a willful wind had just passed through. My ideal was a kind of picturesque disorder.
The most conspicuous piece of furniture is a table, round and of solid oak, which a ranger confiscated in a gambling hideout a few years ago where it accommodated an eight-hand game of poker, leaving plenty of room for action in case action became necessary. I placed a large student's lamp in the center, with books crowding gently toward it as if to keep warm on winter nights. The "bookcases" against the wooden wall are oak-stained apple boxes stacked atop one another clear to the ceiling. My vegetable man gave me most of the boxes, and I bought the remainder in the open market at ten cents a piece. The typewriting table accommodates an ancient Oliver (No. 5), a book or two, a manuscript holder, and a stack of paper. The chairs (except for one sacred, expensive, newfangled, cleverly adjustible typewriter's chair) are rawhide bottomed, oak-framed, and built by an artisan whose workshop is somewhere in the woods near Apple Springs, Texas.
For curtains and couch cover I had sewed into shape eight-ounce duck called "cotton sacking," which goes well with yellowed limestone. The floor, worn with a century of use, is wavy from the warping of the six-inch material used in its construction. I wish I might have been successful in collecting a cheerful rag carpet with which to replace two dismal and disintegrating rugs now spread down the central portion.
A knothole in the ceiling annoyed me considerably until one day, lying on my couch, I saw framed in it a canyon wren peering down inquisitively. I didn't move an eyelash, and presently he flew to the mantelpiece, hopped along from one end of it to the other, inspected the typewriter table, and flitted over to the center table on which he spent some time going over books and pamphlets for fish moths. After a short visit to a low stand he exactly retraced his steps—big table, little table, mantelpiece, and on out through the ceiling. He gives me a going over every once in a while, and I have become reconciled to the knothole.
Cooking equipment and food supplies are relegated to one corner and introduce a discordance which I have not yet been able to remedy. Perhaps this sour note in the symphony of my interior decorations cannot be sweetened at all. We have become so accustomed to specialized rooms that one generalized to the extent this one is seems to present irremediable disharmonies.
But why this concern over looks? Am I not pursuing a mere tradition, a shadow without substance in making all this to-do about setting myself up to write a book in the field of natural history? Why shouldn't I have sensibly and matter-of-factly cleared out a room in my own house in the city, put a "don't-disturb" sign on each door, disengaged the telephone, and gone to work? I don't know, but I couldn't. I tried it. I couldn't shuck off the character I had in the city. Out here it slips off, and I find myself posing as a student, as a fireside philosopher, as a secluded naturalist, as a man maybe with a message—at any rate as a person determined to write some kind of a book.
Set solidly in the west wall of my room, opposite the books, is an institution that ties me to an ancient past and gives me—an infinitesimal human unit—a comfortable sense of belonging and continuity with my kind,—connects me lovingly with precedents. I find that living by a properly constructed fireplace, in a rock room, pleasantly isolated, is like camping outside, inside. The mystic circle of the campfire is reduced to a semicircle, but in return for the bisection there are not a few compensations.
There comes no blast howling out of the north, whipping your fire this way and that; no rain beating down upon you; no glare of the noonday sun, or other whimsies of the weather to visit discomforts upon the flesh. There are no pre-caveman inconveniences. The campfire brought inside these roughhewn walls completes a cave replica.
The fireplace was born in a cave many thousands of years before any kind of a house was built. To this day little country boys trench out a rough half-flue in the bank of a ravine, build a fire there, and sit around it in a semicircle, watching the flames lick up their improvised half-chimney, and cracking nuts pilfered from a nearby pecan bottom. Grown a few years older, these same boys hollow out a cavity in the bank, dig a hole from the surface above to connect with it, and the fireplace is born again.
When the first caveman found a fissure in the overburden of his cave, and, with a little punching, gave his fire a draft, he revolutionized indoor living, since the first air-conditioning unit was then in operation. The sour corners of the cave became suddenly as sweet as the winds of heaven. Noisome odors vanished; food kept better; and an access of energy came to the human denizens through better oxygenation of their blood—a magic purification which my own fireplace is performing for me here and now. The pioneer mason built it to draw just right, by gentle suction, moving all the air of the room in a constant flow, yet not so rapidly as to take all the heat out: flow but no rush, replenishment without haste.
Far from being brought into the house, as above carelessly suggested, the house was originally built around the fireplace. The genealogy of the latter is longer by some ages or eons.
People unhabituated to this institution are prone to violate its etiquette. I have known those who hover over the stone flagging, hearth broom in hand, to sweep it clear of every ash or cinder happening to fall out upon it. And there is, unhappily, the nervous individual who sits hunched out of his chair, jabbing coals loose from the body of the wood where they belong. And it's bad fireplace manners to be too sensitive to a little smoke, especially to the savory smoke of good oak wood, or mesquite, or juniper, since a whiff is as incense in the nostrils of the orthodox. I used to know an old woodsman whose final preparation for striking camp was to hold his hands in the smoke to scent them up for sniffing later. I have found that the odor doesn't last long enough to bother with it; but if a commercial chemist will provide a fixative for the perfume of burning oak or mesquite, I can assure him of at least one customer.
Electric or steam heat, furnaces—indeed, central heating of all types—divorce man from the presence of fire; but he is bound to it by unbreakable ties. Half the hunting craze of the city man is at bottom the yen for a campfire. Something, he knows, has been left out of his life. We have lived on intimate terms with an open fire so long that our souls freeze without it. And what a sorry device is the "log" of the gas fireplace! It's as pathetic as the doll complex outlasting childhood.
More than any other of my chores, washing dishes disturbs my pose; and I soon found myself studying the whole dishwashing problem. I dismissed paper dishes, since they are no good except for the sandwiches and the fodder of an afternoon picnic. The Fabian tactic of "putting things to soak" (especially pots and pans) is merely humoring a cowardice which attacks the human will while it is rocked into somnolence by the sluggish pulsations of an organ concerned with the task of rendering recently ingested food absorbable.
When my fireplace had accumulated a supply of good clean ashes, the pot-and-pan annoyance was considerably relieved. Roasting peanuts, potatoes, and eggs in the campfire is a part of the lore of boyhood. I was surprised, however, to find the wide range of food which yields graciously to this primitive method. Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, indeed, all commercial species of the cabbage tribe, except collards, may be disinterred from a two-hour burial in the fireplace, steaming and savory, with every jot and tittle of the original vitamin and mineral content readied for assimilation. Roasting ears, apples, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, all succumb deliciously to the steady heat of properly banked coals and ashes.
It's simple. Wrap your vegetable about in plenty of tough, wet paper, nest deeply in a hollowed-out bed of coals and hot ashes, cover and tamp, and go on about your work. Two or three hours later rake your dinner out of the hearth, disengage the parched wrappings, transfer to plate, season to taste. After your meal, sweep up the hearth, wash plate, knife, and fork, and take a nap.
There are some watery vegetables—celery, tomatoes, asparagus, and, of course, greens of every kind—which I couldn't make conform to this method; but they stew, and stewing doesn't dirty a pot anything like baking. If one is alone, there's nothing to keep him (as I found out) from eating a stewed vegetable out of the pan in which it is cooked. This neat device sidesteps the dirty plate.
Some carnivorous reader may be curious about the meat. Well, when I have a carnivorous guest, I broil the steak if he has been thoughtful enough to provide one. On occasion I tried roasting in hot ashes, but with disappointing results, owing, I think, to lack of practice. Ordinarily, I avoid messing things up with meat by practicing vegetarianism, and find my physical strength unimpaired, my mental vigor not more subnormal than when I had meat once or twice a day, and my prejudices as vindictive as ever. One can get along without meat easily enough.
Half the dishwashing battle is won by not putting it off. Use military strategy. Strike at once, suddenly, sans mercy. He who hesitates in front of a pile of dirty dishes is compounding trouble. Tiny bits of food are taking a deadly grip; liquids are drying up, leaving sedimentary deposits; grease is caking; sticky things like melted cheese, and gummy things like peach preserves, are throwing up barricades of defense against assaults of steel wool and dishrags, foamy with soapy water.
Whether or not this book is any good, I am already compensated by having regained a sense of the flow of time. There are now few moments mutilated with flurried haste. The incubus of some neglected task has loosened its hold, and I feel no longer the internal disquietude of something hanging fire which it was my duty to straighten out a week or two ago. Rhythm comes of timing the items of one's routine to conform to those of the natural day.
Whence comes the deliberation and aplomb of out-of-doors people the world over, savage as well as civilized? The American Indian is recorded as grave, slow, measured in speech and manner. The frontier Texan figures in fiction and in factual descriptions with a "drawl" and as a man of few words. Of course, now, with a generation of urbanization, as much chatter falls from the composite mouth of Texas as from that of any other state, excluding only those of disproportionate metropolitan populations. Outdoor living not only softens speech but slows its tempo, reflecting quieter nerves and mental reactions surer if somewhat slower on the trigger.
It is because Nature herself is deliberate. Ninety-nine per cent of her performance is gradual. To take a single instance out of those hundreds ready at hand: what a large percentage of urbanized populations miss beginning the day under the spell of the silent, pervasive, leisurely preparations of the heavens to receive the sun!
I have been looking over a two-hundred-acre plot of fenced land and trying to compare the life it now supports with that which it had been supporting for thousands of years when the first white man occupied it a hundred years ago. This land has been living upon its own fat and finally upon its own vitals, consuming its capital instead of the interest alone, as it did in the year 1846 and before.
In spring and early summer the abandoned field of fifty acres is blanketed with povertyweed (Filago nivea); in later summer and early fall with Mexican tea, a species of cooton which even the hungry goats refuse to eat. Judging from the native vegetation growing on an adjacent highway, there were no less than a hundred different species of flowering plants and shrubs, as well as a dozen different grasses thriving here before the pasture land was intensively grazed, the field was fenced, and the first plow disturbed its long-accumulated humus. Relatively few vegetable species have survived, which means that the variety of animal life, also, has been proportionately reduced. Variety has been sacrificed during the past hundred years to produce cotton, corn, oats, and to graze sheep, goats, and other domesticated animals.
In the two hundred acres under fence there are now about a hundred chickens, fifty turkeys, twenty head of neat cattle, three or four horses, and little wild life to speak of, but even this domestic stock is not supported from the land upon which it is confined. From year's end to year's end the food which nature supplies from the depleted soil has to be supplemented with store-bought provender, grown elsewhere, processed, sacked, transported great distances, and at last dished out as an individual purchase and hauled twenty miles. It is this elaborate organization which permits animal life to subsist at all upon these famished acres, and which gives many people in similar circumstances the illusion that the land is providing something besides space in which the animals may move around.
It is true that even in prepioneer times fire restricted the variety of life on prairies and plains for the benefit of grazing animals valuable to the Indians such as the antelope and buffalo; but annual autumn fires had no such disastrous effect upon natural life as fencing has had, since the flow of grazing life was unimpeded and the fertility of the land itself little impaired.
In pre-Columbian times, on the creek skirting this tract, there were a couple of beaver dams which multiplied the number of species, both animal and vegetable, manyfold. With the extermination of the beaver, floods have swept their old check dams away and scoured banks and channel bed. Swollen to madness by the increasing runoff from its tilled watershed, the little stream ground and tore away all obstructions, year after year, until the channel throughout its length from hills to river valley is swept clean as a floor. Present owners, or some of them, along its course are constructing concrete dams at a cost of from $500 to $1,000 per dam to take up again the work which the beavers left off seventy-five years ago. I think they are locking the door after the horse has been stolen. They may be able to recover some kind of horse, but not the superior animal that escaped.
As the period of abuse lengthened, the creek grew temperamental and had spells of refusing to run at all during long summer droughts, drying up into stagnant pools which are death-traps for aquatic life. Thus blow followed blow during successive years, destroying here a link and there another, loosening and letting fall whole chains of interdependent life. The decline was so gradual that it was long unnoticed; and even now it requires the perspective of a whole century to bring before the mind's eye the full extent of the catastrophe.
In pre-Columbian times deer and other browsers wandered across this acreage, taking mast in the fall or nibbling tender shoots in the spring, but wounding nothing to its hurt. Opossums, coons, skunks, snakes, fish, frogs, beaver, predators and preyed-on, and man himself had reached an equilibrium when the first fence appeared; and year after year there had been no diminution in the amount of life or, what is more important, in the variety of life immediately dependent upon the creek and the acres along its borders. Instead of the fifty-odd turkeys now liberally subsidized, this plot of ground in prepioneer times served merely as a part of the range for flocks of wild turkeys who stayed not long unless there happened to be a pest of insects and then they not only stayed but brought in reinforcements until the pest was effectually checked. Mobile life flowed in and concentrated only when an excess of other life justified such concentration. Thus monopoly by any one form of life was prevented, and less fortunate forms were tided over and given a chance to recuperate. Nature, left alone, multiplied forms: from the infinite number of mutations called forth, a few are continually chosen to slake the eternal thirst for variety. She abhors not only a vacuum, but monotony also. Free and unlimited fencing has interfered with the healthy circulation of natural life, congested and confined it in pockets, restricted its channels, and developed conditions analogous to varices and hardened arteries in the human circulatory system. In the present instance, the fence has frustrated nature, and nature retaliates with povertyweed and Mexican tea.
As the wild turkeys took the part of the threatened against the overwhelming force of insect numbers, so with other vital adjustments. In the free circulation of life there is always moderation, nothing too much, no robbing or senseless gorging: The acres now under fence were as rich at the end as they were at the beginning of any period, a year or a hundred or a thousand years. As for human life, this plot of ground supported the minute fraction of an Indian. If "one" is made the numerator of this fraction, the denominator will, I think, run into at least six figures. But whatever the size of the denominator, it can be multiplied by one thousand to get the fraction of an Indian this same plot of ground would now support with fences down, present population removed, and domesticated life permitted to seek its own competitive level. This is a fundamental, permanent, irremediable impoverishment, differing from the devastation of war, which, being wrought mainly upon the works of man, is by man quickly repaired. It is all recorded statistically. Cold columns of figures set forth the facts, but no Isaiah, or other poet of desolation, has burned the truth into the public mind. The "plan of salvation" presupposed a "conviction of sin" and this necessary basis has not yet been laid.
The curse which has blighted these two hundred acres has been multiplied a thousand or a million times. Texas, topographically considered, is an inclined plane tilted suggestively toward the Gulf of Mexico which still has in its yawning chasms room for unlimited consignments of soil fertility. In periods of excessive rainfall the regurgitations of a dozen bloated rivers spill over the continental shelf. In droughty seasons, sweepings of vast erosions are blown by violent winds clear from the high plains miles out to sea.
Natural life in North America has been more profoundly affected by fencing than by any other of man's devices, ancient or modern, for it is the fence which has enabled him to multiply at will those species which minister to his wants, while suppressing plants and animals which do not. From the walling about of a desert water hole by Arab or Hebrew nomad to the throwing of a prefabricated net of barbed and other wire over the great plains and prairies of North America, the fence has fenced off or fenced in certain natural life from one resource or another that it must have to survive, and has given priority to other forms favored by the fence maker.
There have been times and places where a ditch-and-bank was the only fence possible. A ditch is still a fence in English law. Trimmed shrubs have provided effective barriers in other times and climes. Hesiod speaks of "the wall of a fenced court." How much that is obscure in the human record on Crete would be revealed if we could compile a history of fencing there from the first rude walls, ditches, and embankments down to fencing with finned bombs at the close of World War II.
The rail has passed into proverb in the more generously wooded sections of the country, the hedge into the psychology of England; the wall, in sacred literature, is used in a thousand metaphors; and though they now serve no purpose, the picket and the paling still appear in cities as a cultural survival from rural life. A hundred years ago on Cape Cod schools and meeting-houses were protected with tight board fences against encroaching sand "to preserve the plot within level and hard." The fence of adobe performs a similar function for homesteads in the southwestern deserts today. In pioneer New England, cedar rails brought from the coast of Maine cost so much that communities abandoned sheep-raising because it required four rails to turn sheep, while cattle may be turned with two. They finally got down to a one-rail fence and then split the rail! In fisher villages of New England toward the middle of the last century fences were made of hogshead staves or of whalebone driven into the sand. I have seen a fair fence, and quite ornamental at that, made out of automobile license plates.
Texas is certainly the most fence-conscious state in the Union, and I am one of the most fence-conscious individuals in it. A fence-war burst upon my childhood with a shock I can still feel. At sundown I saw stretching for miles across the gently rolling and virgin prairie a lately completed barbed-wire fence, four shining strands of galvanized Glidden held up by cedar posts peeled and weathered to the shade of old ivory and set solidly eight feet apart. It was the first real fence I had ever seen, and I had watched the workmen building it, wide-eyed with wonder. But at that, it was an interest mingled with fear instilled by half-heard murmurs against fencing up the country. Men sitting around the general store on Saturday afternoons didn't like it a bit.
One day at sundown I took a long look at the wonderful fence and went to bed thinking about it. Next morning at sun-up I rushed out to have another look. During the night a frightful transformation had occurred. Each tightly stretched strand had been cut between each pair of posts, and the wire had curled up about them, giving the line as it led away into the sun a frizzled appearance, as of a vicious animal maddened so that every particular hair stood up on end. I was speechless. I couldn't for the moment call anyone to come and see what had happened.
As a result of this fence-cutting, an old, smoldering feud flamed up in the community. There were duels with pistols, and there were mysterious riders at night, moving along in such close formation that you could hear stirrups popping against each other as a group approached in the darkness. Law and order, however, finally prevailed; the fence was rebuilt.
Then there was a period of big pastures. The prairies were still virgin. There were endless swells of greenery in spring stretching away to the horizon in every direction, parched in summer, brown and sere in autumn and winter. There was still riding-room, space to follow a pack of greyhounds chasing jack rabbits. But every time a dog ran afoul of one of those cursed fences and split his noble back from neck to tail, my hatred flamed up against them. I sympathized with the fence cutters, no matter how much I heard them condemned by my elders.
The more extensive fences, that is, field-and-pasture fences, in the rougher portions of the Edwards Plateau, were of stone or rail before Glidden's time, and the building of the stone fences was a task for Hercules. Some idea of the cheapness of labor in that period may be gained by the knowledge that it was profitable to enclose five-dollar-an-acre land in a fence weighing not less than a ton per linear yard. Besides, the stone was often hauled a mile or two and much of it required chipping to make it serve. It is true that there was a little offset in the cost of this enormous task, since some of the land selected for fields had to be cleared of loose stone anyway.
A few of these fences have been kept in repair and still serve, but most of them are tumbled down along property lines, aged aristocrats abased at the feet of a usurping skeleton, an upstart in the hierarchy of fences. Sometimes one finds a fence-museum out in the cedar brake; a stretch of disintegrated stone fence paralleling an old rail fence rotted down, while alongside these relics of other eras runs a string of shining barbed-wire fence, five strands stretched tight and stapled to stalwart posts firmly tamped into two feet of dirt or rock.
Yes, "I sympathized with the fence-cutters."
I didn't know then how true my instinct was. Wire fences meant not only the doom of the greyhound and the sport of chasing jack rabbits, but of natural vegetation at a time when there was no generally diffused knowledge of its conserving function, no science to mitigate or put off the disaster, and no social consciousness to impel the use of such science even had it been available. Topsoil muddying creeks and rivers caused little comment; great gashes in the earth appeared, wounds from which it will never recover, but no one cried out against this havoc. Soon there was five-cent cotton, tenantry, women worked to death, and undernourished children reared in shameful ignorance. It has been estimated that Texas has paid thirty million tons of humus-laden soil for every bale of cotton she has ever marketed.
Much has been said and written of man's inventiveness in destructive devices outpacing his sense of responsibility, but the inventions and appliances of peace are often just as disastrous and for the same reason. There was no serious discussion of the social implications and of the sensible use of barbed wire, as the terrific assault began—only general jubilation over the solution of the fencing problem and glorification of "the wondrous, wondrous Age."
Samson and Hercules must assemble the material for a stone fence, but mere brute strength is not enough. There is an art involved, the art of chinking. I was taught this by a robust Italian farmer who builds even now the best stone fences in the country. They are worth going miles to see: solid, massive, rising out of the earth with the grace of a natural growth, and following the contours of the land like a garment designed and tailored to a perfect fit. Delaney's fences won't harbor a field mouse, they are so closely and perfectly chinked. Smooth as a mortared wall, each stone is set in right obedience to the laws of gravitation which cooperate in holding it in its place instead of working with stubborn and unresting will to pull it down. They are built without mortar, but they are built "'gainst the tooth of time and razure of oblivion."
The art of chinking is an ancient one, even here in the new world. Walls of loose stone built by aboriginal tribes of Arizona, notably on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, reveal the principle but not the touch of the master chinker. Nevertheless, after ten centuries the walls of Kinishba stand firm.
The stone fence grows more beautiful with age. Wood, even cedar, eventually decays; wire fences are ugly to begin with and become progressively more unattractive; iron fences, besides having a military aspect, rust, and paint only makes them more offensive. Wordsworth spoke with regret of the introduction of "iron palisades to fence off family burying grounds," as they destroyed much of the rustic simplicity of a churchyard where he himself had taken pains to protect certain yew trees with a "substantial oak fence." The weathering of stone fences, the look of age, venerable and nerve-quieting, is time-created. Without losing evidence of their human origin, they finally come to harmonize with natural features of the landscape, pleasing also because they are plainly indigenous. Another generation or two may clear away surviving segments of these fences, as the last generation has sawed up the priceless red-cedar logs of pioneer cabins in the same area.
That which each man loved
And prized in his peculiar nook of earth
Dies with him or is changed.
Sections of these noble fences, especially those available to highways, should be preserved, not only because they are beautiful in and of themselves, but because their testimony is significant of a period which will grow in historical importance, century by century, as long as present civilization endures. The blocks composing these structures are crumblings off the great limestone ledges, vertebrae of the hillsides, quarried by the swelling roots of a vegetation starved for any pitiful little pocket of moisture or bit of nourishment stingily stored in natural creases and seams of rock.
Fences of cedar also survive, both worm and stake-and-rider, antedating in some cases the fences of stone. I know a stake-and-rider fence nearly a hundred years old with hardly a blemish in it. The lot and yard fences around homesteads are of cedar, hand-hewed and set upright so close together that a cottontail rabbit must hunt for a hole and then pinch himself a little to get through. This cutting, hewing, fitting, driving, and binding palings to form a verminproof fence, while not involving the backbreaking labor of stone-fencing, was still an enormous undertaking. Many of these pales, built by first settlers, remain hard and sound, close-knit and verminproof. They were fashioned from mountain cedar which lasts like bone.
When I look over one of these pioneer farmsteads, with its fields and pastures, lots, corrals, orchard or garden spaces, and yards, fenced with stone and hand-hewed cedar, I wonder how the people who left them to us found time to do anything else.
Encyclopedias, generally, do not do fences justice. One of the best and most popular of these compendiums devotes nine of its huge columns to fencing, the sport, and only one column to the fencing which has to do with gardens, yards, fields, pastures, enclosures of any kind, or drift fences of the western cowman. Being an English encyclopedia, the article is listed under "Hedges and Fences," not "Fences and Hedges," an indication of that uncompromising regionalism which makes the English great. Under "barbed wire" we get two and a half columns dealing mainly with the manufacture of this particular type of fence.
This work treats with deference and at great length fencing as a sport of aristocracy, while passing over with scant attention the ditch-and-bank, the hedge, the wall, pales, rails, stone, barbed-wire and meshed fencing. I think there would be wide interest and great educational value in encyclopedic articles by competent anthropologists on "fences of early man," or articles from classical scholars or antiquarians on "fences of the Greeks and Romans," or from the medieval historian on "fences and feudalism," or from W. P. Webb on "fences and the plains civilizations of the world."
The same catering to the quality is seen in the barely five columns given to "Ploughs and Ploughing" compared with ten columns on the sword. The editors lose interest in the sword after it has been beaten into a plowshare. Weapons have naturally been the main interest of the predatory, time out of mind; while tools have been the concern of people who produce and conserve the things which their masters appropriate to have and to hold until a stronger predator comes along. Machines of all kinds are adequately treated, and this is in part due to the fact that the ownership of machines forms the basis for a new exploitation.
But the common man is coming gradually into prominence. Even the most ponderous encyclopedia will eventually discover him and acknowledge his existence by giving the draft horse an even break with the racing breeds, and by devoting as much space and as sound a scholarship to "poultry and poultry-farming" as to "falcons and falconry."
That the word "fence" is a contraction of "defence" suggests that enclosures in the beginning were constructed for the purpose of keeping things out rather than for keeping them in. The vineyards of sacred literature, as well as the cultivated fields of the American frontiers, were fenced against stock which roamed at large; but now in all civilized countries stock is fenced in instead of out. This makes fences a concern of no small importance to the naturalist, as the construction and disposition of these artificial barriers change radically the flora and fauna native to the region.
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