Nearly sixty literary perspectives on the landscape and life of the Big Bend region.
Series: Corrie Herring Hooks Endowment, Number Fifty-four
The dramatic desert landscapes of the Big Bend country along the Texas-Mexico border reminded historian Walter Prescott Webb of "an earth-wreck in which a great section of country was shaken down, turned over, blown up, and set on fire." By contrast, naturalist Aldo Leopold considered the region a mountainous paradise in which even the wild Mexican parrots had no greater concern than "whether this new day which creeps slowly over the canyons is bluer or golder than its predecessors, or less so." Whether it impresses people as God's country or as the devil's playground, the Big Bend typically evokes strong responses from almost everyone who lives or visits there.
In this anthology of nature writing, Barney Nelson gathers nearly sixty literary perspectives on the landscape and life of the Big Bend region, broadly defined as Trans-Pecos Texas and northern Chihuahua, Mexico. In addition to Leopold and Webb, the collection includes such well-known writers as Edward Abbey, Mary Austin, Roy Bedichek, and Frederick Olmsted, as well as a wide range of voices that includes explorers, trappers, cowboys, ranch wives, curanderos, college presidents, scientists, locals, tourists, historians, avisadores, and waitresses. Following a personal introduction by Barney Nelson, the pieces are grouped thematically to highlight the distinctive ways in which writers have responded to the Big Bend.
- Introduction: Monolingual in Two Languages
- Chapter One: Paradise Found and Lost
- Robert T. Hill: Running the Cañons of the Rio Grande
- Antonio de Espejo: Exploring the Rios
- Charles L. Baker: Geologist's Heaven
- Richard Phelan: God's Country
- Aldo Leopold: Guacamaja
- Roland H. Wauer: Maderas del Carmen
- Mary Lasswell: Coloraturas in the Canyon
- Martin Dreyer: A Mountain for Suzy and for You
- Barton H. Warnock: Capote Falls
- David Alloway: Where Rainbows Wait for Rain
- Chapter Two: Nature as Devil's Advocate
- Walter Prescott Webb: Wrecked Earth
- John C. Duval: Mr. Cooper Was a Humbug
- O. W. Williams: The Honca Accursed
- Mary Austin: Jornada del Muerto
- Eugene Manlove Rhodes: Crossing to Safety
- Edward Abbey: Sierra Madre
- Michael Jenkinson: River of Ghosts
- Chapter Three: The Wild and Domestic Border
- Bob Burleson and David H. Riskind: Rural Housing
- Kathryn Williams Walker: Tarantula
- J. P. S. Brown: The Brown-and-White Spotted Aristocratic Corriente
- Frederick Olmsted: The Mustangs
- William H. Echols: The Camel March
- Ralph A. Selle: Opal Fields of Shimmering Blue
- Evelyn Mellard: They Live Here Too--Our Quail
- Roy Bedichek: The Wing of the Swallow
- Kirby F. Warnock: Ghost Lights
- Kenneth Baxter Ragsdale: Cinnabar
- Chapter Four: Nature as Antagonist or Protagonist
- Richard Meade (Ben Haas): Den of Thieves
- Alice Jack Shipman: Savage and Successful
- William Langewiesche: The River Is Not a Ditch
- John R. Bartlett: Horse-Head Crossing to Delaware Creek
- O. W. Williams: The Lobo
- Roy McBride: Las Margaritas
- A. Ray Williams: The Golden Eagle
- Frederick R. Gehlbach: Poison, Poison
- Keith Elliott: The Marvelous Maligned Mesquite
- Lisa Beaumont: Autumn
- Chapter Five: The Devil's Playground
- Ludwig Bemelmans: Tinkling Spurs
- Horace W. Morelock: Kokernot Springs
- Edward Abbey: Disorder and Early Sorrow
- Virginia Madison: Pronghorn
- Louis Agassiz Fuertes: A Letter from the Chisos Mountains
- Herbert Brandt: Birding at Boot Spring
- Vernon Bailey: Mexican Bighorn
- Mary S. Young: Livermore Journal
- Mary E. Humphrey: Río Bravo del Norte
- Dudley Dobie: Firearms, Exploding Rocks, and a Centipede in Bed
- Fred McCarty: My Final Trip
- Chapter Six: A Big Bend Sense of Place
- Will F. Evans: Davis Mountain Stories
- John Klingemann: Sublime
- Carl V. Jarrell: A Wasp Called the Mud-Dauber
- Ross A. Maxwell: Cueva de Alsate and Native Homes
- Alice Jack Shipman: Primitive Man's Food
- J. O. Langford: Homesteader's Bedroom
- Joe S. Graham: Candelilla Wax
- Sam Richardson: River Guides and Big Water, Good Water
- Ted Gray: Yellow Slicker
- W. D. Smithers: Sun Messages
Reno, Nevada, had been cloudy and rainy for weeks, and my mood matched the weather. Home to me is south of New Mexico and west of the Pecos: Far West Texas, Big Bend country, Chihuahuan Desert, borderland, a place where the sun always shines. I didn't know how homesick I'd become until I received a package sent by friends who lived on a ranch just north of Big Bend National Park. As soon as I tore open the box, out poured desert wind and hot sun. Cody and Diana Crider had sent pieces of plants from home. Cody is one of the best cowboy colt breakers I've ever known, and his Mexico-born wife, Diana, crawls into black bear dens to study their cubs. Affectionately, I call him "the Code of the West" and her "the Bear Lady." They knew the desert plants would make me homesick. As I pulled each thorny piece out of the box, wave after wave of emotion and memories swept through me.
The piece of lechuguilla (Agave lecheguilla) brought out the most emotion because, like the West Texas March winds, I never guessed I would miss it. When I was growing up, my brother once decided that he was going to be a baseball pitcher. His pitching career was short-lived, however, because in order to practice he needed me for a catcher, and the first pitch he threw toppled me backward into the sharp points of an agave. I've had an extreme dislike for the agave family ever since—big ones, little ones, medium-sized ones. My prejudices grew worse after I began living on the Texas-Mexico border in the Big Bend. Agave family members constantly stabbed me, crippled my horses, and left ugly scratches across my expensive leather. Distilled into tequila, they often persuaded me to make foolish decisions and impaired my normally astute judgment. I've cussed the family most of my life, yet standing there in that post office parking lot, I was so glad to see their little dried-up cousin lechuguilla that I broke down and cried—and being a West Texan I don't cry often.
This gray-green, ragged agave, the lechuguilla, grows only about eight inches tall, reproducing by offshoots. Trying to be a fat-leaved succulent, its sharply pointed fibrous leaves look somewhat sucked out, stringy, homely, and usually curve in one direction as if wind-blown. But the curves seldom match the prevailing west-to-east desert wind or even the plant next door. When they bloom, they send up tall, lancelike flower stalks that always make me imagine a tiny army of little Don Quixotes and Sancho Panzas marching down the mountainside and through the rocks, tilting at windmills—or in this country, probably greasing them.
After the lechuguilla, the next piece I was able to shake loose and separate from the fairly tangled mass of thorns in the box was a small piece of Corona de Cristo (Koeberlina spinosa). This thorny shrub produces leaves and even red berries, but I'd seldom seen them. As usual, this piece—a familiar, bare, sharply pointed, almost bright green woody stick covered with thorns—had neither. Since I'd been struggling for two years to learn Spanish at the ripe old age of fifty—after being a monolingual all my life—I now made an educated guess that the name must mean Christ's crown in Spanish. I'd never thought about it before, but, yes, a person could make a very wicked crown from a few sprigs of this plant. It did look exactly like the thorny crown often painted around Christ's head by artists, blood dripping from the wounds where nature's callous thorns had pierced his divine skin—by now a familiar symbolic image.
Mary Austin, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century desert author I'd admired for years, once lived in the Mojave Desert and had written a book about Jesus being from a small desert town. She felt the desert had influenced his vision and believed deserts were natural birthplaces for religion. Well, where I come from, the desert seems to be a natural birthplace for smuggling, banditry, murder, and mayhem. Being an uppity woman, Mary had called herself a prophet and predicted that the world's next great culture would spring from the desert Southwest. But she probably didn't plan on it being a drug culture. I chuckled to myself as I imagined a drug lord as Lord. I guess everything she predicted has come true, but I don't think it's quite what she had in mind. Images and ideas kept making sparks off the sharp tips of the Corona de Cristo in my hand. Out on horseback, I'd often seen small creatures hiding among those wicked thorns: jackrabbits, cottontails, mice, even snakes. How ironic that snakes would hide in the crown of Christ for safety—or maybe not. In my desert, Lucifer is just a harmless little purple-throated hummingbird who nests only in lechuguilla stalks.
Reaching back into the box and pricking my finger on a sharp leaf, I shook loose a piece of algerita (Berberis trifoliolata). I had always had a love-hate relationship with this plant. The yellow flowers are usually the first to bloom in February. I would often be so starved for a table bouquet that I would brave the sharp, Arthurian-sword-shaped leaves in order to pick a small bouquet. Once and only once was I ambitious—and foolish—enough to make jelly from the tiny red fruits. The berries being impossible to pick, I would spread a bedsheet under a big algerita bush and whack it with a hoe handle. Spiders, worms, bugs, dead leaves, small twigs, grass awns, and a few berries would shower onto the sheet. The berries came off in bundles of three, if I remember correctly, and each tiny stem had to be carefully removed by hand. Even the dried blossom ends were not properly shed and had to be rubbed off. So I would guess that a half-cup of berries took about an hour to gather and prepare. Enough for one batch of jelly took me an entire summer! When company arrived, I would proudly set a tiny jar on the table. The amber-red, grainy ambrosia tasted like a tangy strawberry-plum-watermelon cross, and I always expected compliments. Instead, I would watch horrified as cowboy friends would dip a big spoon into the tiny jar, smear my precious hard work lavishly on a biscuit, and go right on with their stories—as though jelly is jelly!
Algerita stems are woody and tough. I tipped up the branch in my hand. No one would suspect, looking at the gray bark, that hidden inside was a brilliant yellow wood. I once dug up a root on a large bush to find a thick enough piece of yellow wood for a knife handle. A friend was trying to make his living making hand-forged anvil knives at the time, and he liked to experiment with desert woods. Knife handles seemed a good, respectful way to use desert wood without using too much. The algerita turned out to be my favorite, and polished into a fine-grained, sunshine yellow streaked with olive.
Gingerly I pulled out a piece of cardenche that was sticking through the box in two places. I wondered how many postal workers had mysteriously been stabbed while the box was en route. Cardenche (Opuntia imbricata) forms dense, treelike thickets and has spines sometimes covered with paper sheaths, like pale yellow wrappers protecting long brown needles as if to keep them sharp. The wrappers were missing on these thorns, and the sharp needles looked especially wicked in cold, foggy Nevada. I might make jelly from algerita or prickly pear, but never from cardenche. They had my utmost respect and I kept my distance. Rumor was that if you rode too near, they actually jumped and attacked, and I sometimes believed it. Once a joint of it was stuck into your boot, you would somehow stick yourself in at least three fingers, your leg, your arm, your horse's leg, and your saddle before finally removing it with a couple of sticks. The pain in those pricked places would last for days. This piece was already stuck to one of my fingers as well as the box. I chuckled.
At home, I would only get close enough to photograph cardenche's flowers and yellow fruit. My daughter has a framed art print hanging on her wall that she bought when she was a little girl with her first cowboy wages. A healthy Hereford calf is standing sideways, looking out at the viewer, its big brown eyes fringed with soft white eyelashes. The calf is framed by a huge clump of beautiful fuchsia-bloomed cardenche. In a photograph or a painting, I could love cardenche. But the only time I ever loved the real plant (before I pulled it out of the box that day) was after it was dead. Once its wicked flesh rots and blows away, only the beautiful gray, hollow bones full of holes—cardenche skeletons—remain. Cactus in my mythic country seems to die of gunshot wounds.
Stuck to the piece of cardenche was a smaller piece of tasajillo (Opuntia leptocaulis), maybe even more deadly and fierce than the bigger stabber. A sneak, it likes to hide in a clump of brush and pierce without warning. Do not ride into this stuff. Do not walk through or even near it, especially if you are a female (it has another name I can't say in public). It is supposed to be good quail food. I could never imagine a fat little quail risking its tender breast to squeeze between the sometimes three-inch thorns in order to reach small red fruits clinging to the pencil-stems, until one of my drinking buddies explained that the berries seem to act as some kind of intoxicant for quail, and they act drunk after eating them. Then I understood.
Next I pulled out a waxy, grayish green, skinny little crooked finger of candelilla which reminded me of some rancher friends that I missed very much who also buy and sell the wax. North of the Rio Grande, candelilla wax is legally imported from Mexico, but south of the border, the wax is usually smuggled into the United States because the wax makers, who work tremendously hard in blistering temperatures and whose camps are far from a bank of cerote (wax), are enticed to sell to better paying buyers north of the border instead of taking it back to the socialistic company store and paying the export tax. They simply cross the border with their wax-laden donkeys or old broken-down trucks. I don't blame them.
Sometimes the lines between right and wrong, good and bad, legal and illegal blur, and sometimes I sympathize with the wrong side. These plants reminded me that law and order straddle a complicated border in my country. In one of his novels, Fire on the Mountain, Edward Abbey writes about a place called Thieves' Mountain. He says the Spanish first stole it from the Anasazi, then the Apaches stole it from the Spanish, then Anglo ranchers stole it from the Apaches, and finally the U.S. government stole it from everyone. Amazingly, it was just a barren pile of hot desert rocks dotted with cactus—not worth dying for, couldn't make a living on it, but everybody seemed to want it bad enough to die for it. Although Abbey's book is fiction, he captures the strange border-crossing value system of the desert Southwest.
According to the wax makers, if candelilla is cut off above the roots for harvesting, the roots will bleed to death and the plants will need to be replanted in order to maintain a future supply. But if the plants are pulled up by the roots, then the plants will grow back thicker. Harvesting candelilla by the squat-and-jerk method is backbreaking work, but the gatherers, whose livelihoods depend on the plants as well as their backs, squat and jerk. Some botanists say the workers are wrong, that pulling up the plant by its roots destroys it. ¿Quién sabe?
Anyway, there is very little work done in Big Bend National Park today. It's a playground, a place to get away from it all and relax. I love to go there too, but not often. My trips into the park always end in some kind of disaster: twelve hours on horseback without water, feet that swell in the heat until I'm forced to cut slashes in $300 boots, sunburn, hives from swimming in the river water, or a case of poison ivy on my butt after squatting to pee in a shady canyon.
A good example of one of my disastrous trips is the time my daughter woke up one Friday morning about ten years ago wanting to spend some quality time with Mom before moving back into her college dorm room at Sul Ross State University. I suggested shampooing the carpet, but she suggested packing an ice chest, driving to the park, and eating lunch across the river at Boquillas. I had a million things to do, but nineteen-year-olds rarely want to spend a day with their moms, so I dropped everything and headed south.
We forgot plastic music, so along about Elephant Mountain, where the Alpine radio "Voice of No Choice" waves fade out, the long road became very quiet. My thoughts wandered over the desert mountains as I compared our national park to others I had visited. In Yellowstone traffic is bumper to bumper and crawls along at a snail's pace—stopping at each entertainment spot (geyser, mud pot, grazing bison) just long enough for three hundred instamatic cameras to click once, simultaneously—and then crawls on. There is no entertainment in Big Bend—the Chisos don't erupt or bubble, mountain lions don't pose for tourists—and we hadn't met a single car.
My daughter and I speculated about what a New York tourist would think of our park. Can you imagine leaving the big towns behind at the interstate and heading out into smaller and smaller towns farther and farther apart, then finally leaving the tiny towns of Alpine, Marathon, or Marfa—none of which is large enough for a real traffic light—for a hundred-mile drive into more and more remote country? Even phone lines and electric lines disappear as the road gets narrower. At night, it's like driving into a black hole. We know who lives beyond the cattle guards and who takes care of the windmills, but the average New Yorker would think they had been dropped on the moon. We laughed at the helplessness of the New York tourist in Big Bend.
About the time we were laughing the loudest, I heard water spewing and my truck's heat gauge jumped from cool to red hot in seconds. There we were, broken down on the empty road, sun beating down, about seven miles north of Panther Junction. I looked at the sandals on our feet, our shorts, and our sleeveless shirts and thought wistfully about our cowboy hats hanging like prayer flags on a shrine of mule deer antlers at home. Uh oh.
We sat there for several long minutes wondering what to do as the pickup cab slowly turned into an oven. Just before heat stroke set in, we spotted a fancy black dually headed our way and stuck out our thumbs. The occupants turned out to be friendly Hispanic tourists from San Antonio, and they gave us a ride to the little Chevron station at Panther Junction. As a knowledgeable local, I started to give the tourists some advice about traveling in the Big Bend, but after noticing their long-sleeved shirts, hats, hiking boots, and water jugs—I decided to keep quiet.
To make a long, very expensive story short, my daughter and I spent the day on a little wooden bench on the shady side of the tiny Panther Junction gas station. The attached tiny store sold boxes of chalk and Scotch tape, so we thought about playing hopscotch or tearing paper into little pieces and taping them back together. My daughter decided she was spending "quantity time" with her mother instead of quality time. I tried calling all the friends I thought I had in the park, but they were either already gone for the weekend or not quite as interested in my dilemma as I thought they should be. Even the phone at the station evidently stopped working on Friday afternoon. No possibility of pickup repair until Monday, and then only maybe. A New Yorker would have had a coronary.
Locals cheered us with "It could be worse" stories. One station employee said he had once been poking around in the solitario, had three flats, and it was three days before a horseback cowboy out of Mexico, looking for lost goats, found him. All he had with him to drink or eat was beer. At least I was driving an old Ford, they said. It could be worse—did I know how far a Mercedes parts house and repairman were from Panther Junction? It could be worse-the station could have sold only gas, no cold drinks and ice cream. It could be worse—we did have shade.
Finally, heading north at sunset in a wrecking truck that had come a hundred expensive miles to tow us back another hundred expensive miles, I again looked out across the endless mountains of Big Bend. We could have flown to Yellowstone cheaper, but somehow I felt we'd had the kind of real wilderness experience that people are missing today when they take guided tours to the top of Alaska's Denali or pack into the Tetons. Those wilderness experiences make the pilgrims feel competent. They hate to go home, hate to go back to the traffic, their jobs, and the rush of city life. Instead of going home refreshed, they go home dragging their feet, wishing they owned a cabin in the pines. In contrast, the Chihuahuan Desert always makes me feel quite incompetent. I couldn't wait to get back to running water, air conditioning, cushioned chairs, the auto parts store, and my trusty Marfa mechanic, Ruben Hernandez. I certainly needed to get back to my job and paycheck.
I also felt that I could have had the same experience if the people who had been moved out of the park still lived there: the Johnsons, the Holguins, the Langfords, the Garcías, the Millers, the Solíses. They had been gentle curanderos, traders, drought-hardened ranchers, cotton farmers, small-time silver miners; maybe a few had been liquor smugglers during the Roaring Twenties. Many of them, of course, bought, harvested, hauled, or made wax from candelilla. The going rate in 1920 for a ton of wax was $2.50. The workers who boiled the plants to extract the wax made $1.00 a day. Nobody was getting rich, so they all got along pretty good. But with the coming of a national park, things changed. The people and their picturesque homes—made of adobe, cactus woods, and sometimes even thatched layers of boiled candelilla—were bulldozed off the map and replaced with official cement block NPS homes and offices. With the coming of the national park in 1944 concessionaires instead of Chata Sada prepared food for travelers—a great loss to both the Sadas and the travelers.
I had never quite gotten used to the essays I would get from both my Anglo and Hispanic students whose families still mourned for land and homes and neighbors that had fallen within park boundaries. Recently, I had attached a copy of Dan Flores' environmental justice essay, "Environmentalism and Multiculturalism," to a student's paper. The student had written about his father's land along Arroyo de Lobos, and how some men were trying to force his father to sell it in order to put in a sludge dump. Like his family, people who had once lived in Big Bend National Park had been forced to sell their lands and move in order to make a playground that is seldom used. Ironically, I couldn't decide which was worse: playground or dump.
With difficulty I pulled myself back from my black thoughts to the box of plants and the piece of candelilla in my hand. Poor people still live along the Rio Grande, and some still smuggle wax into Texas from Mexico. I don't think anyone has yet invented a mechanized way that can economically or aesthetically compete with four to six hungry people, drifting across the desert with a boiling vat, a few handmade tools, and a couple of donkeys. The soft, high-quality wax was once used to waterproof tents; to make wax amulets and figurines, candles, shoe polish, chewing gum, and phonograph records; and to make waxes for cars, floors, and tanned leather. Today perhaps most of it finds its way into women's cosmetics. Again I marveled at the irony. Those ugly little witchlike fingers of candelilla eventually touch the lips of the most beautiful women in the world. Judging by its Latin name, Euphorbia antisyphilitica, it must have also once been used as either a cure or a prevention—or maybe it was even thought to be a cause—of syphilis. Lipstick, candles, music, shoe polish, leather, and car wax do tend to help spread venereal disease. Beauty always has had a dark side.
Along one side of the box lay a long strip of sacahuista (Nolina erumpens). By now sensitized to all the self-protectiveness that seemed to be a characteristic of every plant from home, I laughed. Only in the desert would Mother Nature line a grass blade with tiny teeth.
Curled on the very bottom of the box was sotol (Dasylirion leiophyllum)—I call it the pampas grass of the Chihuahuan Desert. A coarse grass with razor-sharp edges, it is eaten by cattle, I've heard, when they're desperate—but I guess I've never seen them that desperate. I once found sotol woven into bits of mat or sandals or something in a cave. According to my old friend Barton Warnock, sotol produces male and female plants and comes from the lily family. Even the symbolic lily makes quite a change when it becomes desertified.
Carefully placing all the plant pieces back into the box brought on a second wave of emotion as I ticked off the names again: lechuguilla, Corona de Cristo, algerita, cardenche, tasajillo, candelilla, sacahuista, and sotol. I stood there in that Nevada post office parking lot with tears welling up when I realized that I didn't know any English names for plants from home. Very white, with a grandfather on the Mayflower and descending from ancestors who spoke English, French, German, Dutch, Welsh, and Gaelic, I'd lost all those languages but one. Although I thought I was too dumb and old ever to learn Spanish, I suddenly realized that by osmosis it had become at least partly my own native tongue. I was a monolingual in two languages!
I also remembered thinking how totally the melting pot had mixed us up when I read that the Mayflower Society had elected a Hispanic, Mildred Ramos, to their top national office in 1992. The races and languages have quietly blended into one another, not only in my border country, but across the nation. In a recent book, John McPhee describes the way geologists have proved that even Plymouth Rock originally came from Africa. Like the Americas, the Chihuahuan Desert is beautiful because of its variety. Leslie Silko says the Native American culture is founded on a belief in the power of blending cultures.
Living along the border fosters a pride in this mixed-upness. Instead of valuing the purebloods, I'm interested in dissolving the borders and boundaries by exploring the ways plants, birds, animals, geology, and even rivers ignore them. The desert, the races, and the languages straddle the border. Instead of being separated by the Rio Grande, people seem to come together here. I've eaten tortillas with steak and french fries, shrimp enchiladas, and jalapeños on pizza. I've danced to "El Rancho Grande," the schottische, and George Strait at the same dance and with the same partner. My friends are blonde ladies who guide pack trips into Mexico, Hispanics who speak no Spanish, and mixed-blood people who drink both Coors and Tecate. In the Big Bend our university dance group has Hispanic students doing Polynesian dances and African American students doing Mexican folk dances. People from either side of the border might have a dentist in Ojinaga and a doctor in Midland. Even skin color gets very confusing. "White" ladies sometimes bare the darkest skin. Some claim that even our local ranch horses are bilingual. We are quite a mixed-up place, and we like it that way.
So, standing there in that Nevada parking lot, carefully closing my box of desert plants, I suddenly knew why I'd been lying awake at night listening to the Mexican radio station some nearby farmworkers had been playing. Their music made me remember a cowboy poem about the radio being the only cure when rural people come down with a case of the high-lonesomes. The farmworkers lived in a small trailer on down the Truckee River past my apartment on the ag-experiment station. They spoke no English. About once a month the police would show up at their place to break up a fight. One weekend while I was gone, one of them was found alongside the road about ten yards from my door—robbed, gagged, tied, with his head and shoulders stuffed inside a gunnysack—unhurt but mad. Strangely, I went to these people for help instead of to my white, English-speaking male neighbor on the snowy morning my old, second-hand Ford Bronco would not start. I walked into their all-male, Spanish-only camp with no hesitation and said with no shame, "Por favor—truca—muy malo." I knew they'd understand me and wouldn't laugh at my illiterate Spanish. I knew they would try to help me, and I knew they could fix whatever ailed my vehicle. The white neighbor who lived next door was a stranger, probably not a mechanic. These guys, although I'd never met them, seemed safer—more like family. Once they had me rolling, I offered them money that I didn't have, knowing they would refuse, and they did.
I had considered myself a handicapped monolingual until that moment in the Nevada post office parking lot when I realized how deeply the border country had embedded itself in my life. Adaptation to place is a process that happens to a person over time and is usually subconscious. You just wake up one day, maybe in some parking lot, and realize that under certain conditions you don't even speak English. You're a mixed-up Chihuahuan Desert rat-nest of sticks, thorns, snakes, and all.
I soon returned to the Big Bend.
So this collection is a tribute to that place I call home.
People tend to draw their own boundaries for the Big Bend. Some consider just the very tip of the Rio Grande's bend, now Big Bend National Park, to be the place. For the purposes of this collection, however, I embrace all of what used to be called "the Big Empty," the whole Big Bend: the watersheds, the Chihuahuan Desert, the trade routes, the smuggler's and Comanche trails and both sides of the river. Big Benders live scattered throughout this area. So I draw a big circle beginning with the Jornada del Muerto near El Paso where the river begins to cross mountain ranges, down through the Franklins, the Quitmans, and the Chinatis to its junction with the Río Conchos. There is something very symbolic about a river headed southwest out of the Rocky Mountains that changes its mind and turns southeast to rendezvous with a river headed north out of Mexico's Sierra Madre. Then my boundary cuts through the deep canyons—Santa Elena, Mariscal, Boquillas, and through the Sierra del Carmens to join forces with the Pecos. Everyone knows that things are different west of the Pecos, so my boundary does not cross it. Following the Pecos north, I include Horse Head Crossing and the Rustler Hills, then west again to El Capitan, across the salt flats and the Diablo Plateau. This draws a big circle around the old Big Empty.
This collection also comes from a broad range of sources. Some are very literary excerpts from novels and essays published by New York presses, some have never been published nor read by the public, some are historical, some are scientific, and some come from diaries, master's theses, or newspapers. I've tried to include all of the many voices that make up the Big Bend people: explorers, trappers, cowboys, ranch wives, curanderos, college presidents, scientists, locals, tourists, historians, avisadores, waitresses, and those who bring the mail. In fact these voices prove that the Big Empty was never really empty at all.
As I did the reading for this collection, I continually found that people either felt the area was a utopia (God's country), a great place to visit (playground), or a dangerous place that people should stay away from (full of devils). So, to me, the title bridges these extremes and incorporates several levels of meaning. The word "country" is most often used by ranchers, cowboys, and other local residents: "I'm leasing some country from Mac." "This is Big Bend country." "This is grass country." "This is good country." "This is big outfit country." "That is Moe Morrow's country." "This is lion country." Those who love it call it "God's country."
On the other hand, others often refer to it as a hell or a desert wasteland or a place where the mountains often look like what the Devil had left over after he built Hell. It is so hot even the Devil wouldn't want to live here. And this division between Heaven and Hell is also prevalent in the culture. Big Benders are almost equally split between those who are fourth-generation Baptists or Catholics, fourth-generation law officers, and fourth-generation smugglers—and sometimes I'm not sure which group I like best. From another perspective, many of our visitors view this as a place to play and forget the laws and morals they left at home while attending chili cookoffs or visiting across the border. So locals sometimes consider visitors "devils," although we need their money. Throughout the collection, I try to give complex, nonjudgmental views and emphasize the oxymorons, paradoxes, and ironies inherent in the language and myths of the place and people. Because I want to encourage the reader to look at the pieces through a literary rather than an historical lens, I have grouped the collection into thematic chapters rather than following a linear time frame. Each chapter includes a brief introduction to the theme of that section, in which I encourage readers to take a deeper look at desert nature writing. The selections span various kinds of nature writing, from fiction to backcountry living to rambles to field notes.
The most difficult decision I faced as editor was what to do about language—spelling, Spanish, accents, italics, colloquial terms, regional names for plants and animals. Some local residents object to Spanish accents on their own Hispanic surnames, saying they prefer the "English version" since they are U.S. citizens. If I use italics for foreign words, then what do I do about "lechuguilla," which is the English name for the plant, just as "tortilla" is the English name for a type of bread and "presidio" is the English name for a local border town? Modernizing "cañon" to "canyon" seems to take some of the flavor away from a piece written at the turn of the previous century. Should I accept the word of one expert over another? For instance, Aldo Leopold spells the name of the parrot he finds in the Sierra Madre guacamaja. My Spanish expert corrected that to guacamaya—which my Spanish/English dictionary says means macaw, and gives papagayo, loro, and cotorra for parrot. Was Aldo Leopold wrong, or did he give us a name used by locals in the parrots' home territory? Bestowers of common names are often quite independent thinkers, especially in the Big Bend. In Alpine, for instance, if you want crisp corn tortilla chips smothered in beans, hamburger, cheese, and guacamole, you'd order campechanas. But just twenty-five miles east, in Marfa, you'd order botanas. Someone braver than I will have to correct these local cooks. My answer to this language dilemma has been to stay true to the original document and quietly give alternate spellings, translations (if they exist and when I know them), and/or cross references in the index for curious readers.
By the time readers have reached the last page, I hope they will have gained a sense of place rather than feeling like they have taken a vicarious, voyeuristic trip through an exotic land peopled with bandits, endangered species, and tourist trappers.
From Chapter 1: Paradise Found and Lost
Imagining the Precolumbian North American continent as a wilderness paradise has recently been severely challenged as a form of colonialism and racism, since the entire continent had been home to millions of hard-working and intelligent indigenous people before Europeans arrived. Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, in his excellent essay "Cultural Parallax in Viewing the North American Habitats," recounts the many ways four to twelve million people "speaking two hundred languages variously burned, pruned, hunted, hacked, cleared, irrigated, and planted in an astonishing diversity of habitats for centuries". We are discovering that many "wild" desert plants, such as agaves, had actually been transported, planted, cultivated, and harvested by indigenous farmers for generations. Everything from willows (planted for basketry) to creek boulders (placed as "water tamers") was a part of complicated land management practices.
The authors collected in this chapter represent the desert as a wilderness paradise in various interesting ways. Robert T. Hill might be called the John Wesley Powell of the Rio Grande. Writing in 1901 as head of the Texas geological survey team, Hill's description of the canyons threaded by the Rio Grande is still the most eloquent. The colorful rock formations have never produced a more articulate spokesperson. This essay and the next one by Antonio de Espejo are classic examples of exploration and entrada narratives. Curiously, the "first English white man" usually travels, like Hill, downriver in a boat, riding the rapids like a bucking bronco. The "first Spanish white man," on the other hand, usually travels upriver on horseback looking for souls to save and finds the natives innocent even when they shoot his horses.
Childlike noble savages are stereotypical of much early adventure writing. The noble savage became a stock character during the nineteenth century in a popular style of writing known as romanticism. Romantics embraced the idea that wild nature would bring out the human's best character traits and a natural nobility. Romantics believed that civilization corrupted the human race and that a return to the simple, idyllic, and peaceful life of the wilderness savage would eliminate tendencies toward greed, thievery, murder, and all of the sins associated with life in the city.
The hidden agenda of romanticism and the entrada narratives was often colonization—the desire to turn "unowned" and "uninhabited" wilderness places and "innocent" people into utopian homes or playgrounds, complete with servants and slaves, for wealthy Europeans. Most explorers were trying to impress those in power back home with their discoveries: fortunes to be made in amazingly fertile lands free for the taking and numerous passive pagan souls ripe for conversion, taxation, and slavery. Thus the modern naturalist is often shocked at the destruction of these teeming Gardens of Eden, when in reality the early explorers had exaggerated the cornucopia for promotional reasons. Modern authors often warn against the tendency of scholars to build on previous work when, as quite often happens, the early research or translation is full of errors. As knowledgeable readers wend their way through this collection, they will discover numerous cases of misidentification or misrepresentation of plants, places, and people. One interesting example of this turned up when I asked John Klingemann and Dr. Rubén Osorio Juniga for a new translation of the Antonio de Espejo entrada narrative. Their new translation does not mention bison or cattle hides as sources for clothing. The farming tribes encountered by Espejo were irrigating cotton from the Río Conchos and Rio Grande and wearing cotton clothing, a much more sensible choice in the hot Big Bend. However, in the classic Herbert H. Bolton translation of the Espejo narrative, the native inhabitants are using robes from "buffalo" even as far south as northern Mexico. The Spanish word actually used by Espejo (who was a cattleman himself) is "vaca," meaning cattle, rather than "cibola" or "civola," meaning bison, an animal he may refer to much later in their journey when describing leather shoes worn in the New Mexico pueblos.
These details seem like insignificant trivia except when they are considered historical fact and influence modern politics. Bones from an extinct shrub oxen found in a cave in the Guadalupe Mountains present the possibility that hides could have come from this now extinct animal. The hides could also have come from escaped Spanish livestock, since Espejo followed Coronado by some forty years. On the other hand, bison hides could have been available quite far south through trade with migrating Indian tribes called "Ciboleros" or "Cibolos" who spent part of their year hunting in what is now New Mexico or east of the Pecos River, which was often called "Río de las Vacas" by early explorers. According to paleontologists, bison congregated along the Pecos River, probably never grazing farther than one drink away, and never inhabited the dry, almost waterless Big Bend region. The Comanche trails were littered with the bones of stolen livestock, which had been driven too long and far between water sources. Vernon Bailey, chief U.S. naturalist at the turn of the twentieth century, says, "In 1901 I could find no one in the Great Bend country who had ever heard of buffalo in that region, nor could I find any evidence to indicate that they had ever inhabited the extremely rough and arid country along that part of the Rio Grande valley." Not until windmills brought dependable water to the surface was the dry Trans-Pecos probably capable of supporting large herds of herbivores or permanent human populations.
In any event, paradise is usually associated with herds of wild animals, and we often imagine paradise as having been lost once the noble savages acquired domestic animals. In Goodbye to a River, John Graves says, "During all human time, it seems, the Comanches, like their cousins the Tartars and the Cossacks and the Huns, had been awaiting that barbaric wholeness the horse was to give them." Historians credit Anglos with bringing domestic livestock into the Southwest in the 1890s, but horses, cattle and sheep, as already mentioned, actually arrived four to five hundred years earlier from the South—not the East—with the early Spanish explorers.
Further complicating the idea of a once harmonious and peaceful paradise, Charles Baker in his summary of West Texas geology reminds us that this particular paradise was born in violence, not grace. He describes the Big Bend as a geologist's heaven where, within twenty-five miles of Marathon, exists every kind of mountain known to man. Richard Phelan describes the Trans-Pecos as God's country: a place man has changed less and occupied less than any other part of the state. He reminds us that Guadalupe Peak, the highest desert mountain in Texas, was once an ocean reef, making moot any claims of native plants or animals in the area. As a matter of fact, ecocritic Frederick Turner, discussing imaginary representations of nature in The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, calls the idea that the North American continent was a complete and balanced paradise immediately preceding European invasion a form of "'scientific' creationism."
In another collected essay, Aldo Leopold, while hiking in Mexico's Sierra Madre, finds a pristine mountain paradise and projects a noble savage innocence onto Mexican parrots as they fly "happily" to meet him. He calls the parrots a "discovery" and assumes their life is so carefree that their early morning chatter is simply about "whether this new day which creeps slowly over the canyons is bluer or golder than its predecessors, or less so." Like an early explorer, he cannot understand their language and wishes for a parrot dictionary. Leopold also worries what will become of the friendly parrot once the tourist-with-a-gun arrives in paradise.
Much of the language associated with wilderness as paradise is associated with loss and uses female-gendered metaphors (mother earth, virgin land) and verbs of abusive sexual conquest (penetration, rape, ravish), as literary critic Annette Kolodny has pointed out. Typical of much natural history writing, Roland H. Wauer, like Leopold, finds a semivirginal Sierra del Carmen paradise disappearing fast, its nesting habitat for imperial woodpeckers about to be raped and ruined forever by loggers. His trip represents a "the last white man's" glimpse of paradise before it is lost to the sound of axes.
Although rape of the land is usually associated with extractive industries such as mining, logging, and grazing, industries such as tourism and subdivision are also guilty. Just as women are often valued primarily as a visual spectacle, tourism is being criticized as a highly visual method of objectifying nature which turns cultures into caricatures of themselves and substitutes seasonal and low-paying service jobs for traditional occupations. Mary Lasswell's adventuring tourist perspective is written in a purple prose style popular with the romantics. With breathlessly rapid New York sentences, she relies on urban metaphors to describe colors on the canyon walls as inspiration for silk, velvet, textile, drapery, upholstery, and carpet. The cliffs remind her of architecture and she uses classical music to describe the feeling of being within those walls. She sings arias to produce self-aggrandizing echoes, says Rio Grande cows drink "afternoon tea," and believes the Spanish dagger is "begging for some sympathetic hand" to bring its "waxen bells" inside the houses. In stark contrast to her tourist's eye view, she also quotes the most eloquent description of the Big Bend ever uttered; for over a century, filmmakers, poets, and essayists have admired this quote from a supposedly illiterate Mexican vaquero. He called the Big Bend the place where rainbows wait for rain, where the river is kept in a stone box, and where the mountains go away at night to play with other mountains.
Quite often, viewing the Trans-Pecos as a paradise depends on when the pilgrim first sees the country: during a relaxing visit with credit card in hand, during a year of good rains, during October's Indian summer, just at dawn or sunset, or under a full Comanche moon. Big Bend homesteader J. O. Langford (excerpted in Chapter Six) says he was forced to leave behind a "paradise" of grass and water during bandit raids in 1915. He returned in 1929 to find a paradise lost: "And now, where once I'd thought there was more grass than could ever be eaten off, I found no grass at all." Discouraged, he left again for good in 1942, just a few months before the desert bloomed again.
Ironically, his often quoted words parallel exactly the cycles of good rain and the terrible drought of the Dust Bowl thirties which Lasswell's droughted-out ranchers lament. She asks them: "When did you last have grass?"
"Nineteen forty-one. It rained good. Not enough to flood, but enough for grass."
"When was another good year?"
"Lessee. Nineteen-fourteen was fine!"
Paradise came again in 1986, but we haven't seen it since. According to river guides, paradise disappeared "forever" in 1990, the last time truly "big water" came down the Rio Grande. But even in 1901, as Robert T. Hill notes, some of his advisors said he would drown, while others said he'd need a buggy, not a boat, to explore the usually dry Rio Grande. Those who first see the Big Bend at high noon in mid-July when the rains haven't come for years see a hot, rocky, barren hell. Those who stay occasionally see it turn into a paradise, knee-deep in grama grass and wildflowers. Those who stay for generations learn to love both extremes.
The last three essays in this chapter expose different perspectives toward owning a piece of paradise. Martin Dreyer recognizes the universal human dream to claim or own a mountain as a way to escape civilization's stress and find a primitive utopia "out there" somewhere. Barton Warnock finds paradise in small, hidden nooks and crannies, protected from overtourism by private land, fences, torturous dirt roads, and a hot three-mile desert hike. David Alloway, on the other hand, finds paradise can be "owned" by the poorest of people because it comes in fleeting moments, often seen only by those who must be at work before dawn. One rainy morning, driving in the dark to his trail guide job with the Chisos Remuda in Big Bend National Park, he sees a delicate rainbow cast by the light of a full moon. The rainbow, as the old vaquero predicted, had waited patiently for rain, but in the clear air and bright desert moonlight, it finds no need to wait for the sun.