Falling From Grace in Texas
This article is excerpted from Falling from Grace in Texas: A Literary Response to the Demise of Paradise edited by Rick Bass and Paul Christensen. The anthology, which has just been published by Wings Press in San Antonio, is a collection of work by 33 Texas writers, responding to environmental degradation from the Panhandle to the Gulf, from the Piney Woods to Big Bend.
This afternoon a golden eagle wheeled past my upstairs window in a swirling snowstorm, playing in the fifty-mile-an-hour gusts that bend the big trees and snap the tops off smaller ones. It got me to thinking about where I grew up, in Houston, on Buffalo Bayou. Where I live now, in the Yaak Valley, the most northwesterly valley in Montana, I can walk due north through the snow for a few miles and cross over into Canada. The Yaak is one of the wildest valleys in the Lower Forty-Eight, a place so wild that we’ve still got fifteen or so grizzly bears living here, one of only six places in the United States where that supremely threatened species is still found. I’ve seen mountain lions on my driveway, elk and moose in the marsh, grizzly and wolf tracks in the front yard. It is a place of extreme biological diversity and splendor, Montana’s only rainforest. I realize that it was growing up alongside Buffalo Bayou, next to Houston’s Memorial Park nearly half a century ago now, that prepared a place in my heart for the Yaak.
When that eagle wheeled past, I had been looking at the newly proposed master conservation plan for Memorial Park. Memorial Park may not quite possess the old-world elegance of New York’s Central Park, but it is in many ways more vital and vibrant, in the rank and unruly way of bayous, with their subtly-stirring pulse of life, the slow-moving current laden with biological riches as the bayou draws nearer to the sea and the end of its heroic natural journey.
In reviewing the master plan, I saw mention of where Chevron had tacked on to the park, donating seven acres. Laudable gifts, the worth of which I’m sure tallies well into the millions, or, for all I know, billions, these days. (In some parts of Montana, those seven acres might still be gotten for a cool thousand dollars). I consider myself lucky to live where I do now—forty-below winters notwithstanding—and reading from a distance of 1,500 miles about Houstonians’ efforts to beef up and protect the slender ribbon of green that bisects their city—our city—I realize how lucky I was to have had that sinuous park while growing up. If I had spent my hours and days collecting spent bullet casings from the gutters of inner city streets, collecting them to make into jewelry, perhaps, might I have grown a harder heart than that of the boy who slipped down to the bayou whenever he could and peered through the ferns and yaupon, mesmerized by the sun-dappled ghosts of alligator gars and giant soft-shelled turtles floating on the surface of that brown water, and by the wild violets that grew amongst the pine needles and oak leaves? Even today the black-light cobalt intensity—the ultraviolet of those violets—feels etched onto my retina, and though that section of woods is long gone, the peace it emblazoned on my mind is not, and it occurs to me that a good day up here in Montana is one in which some marvel of a wilder, perhaps grander nature impresses itself upon me with even a proximate degree of the same peace that I knew as a child, an innocence and peacefulness that I suspect was so much richer, back then—as dense as that cobalt color—for the unquestioned nature of it.
These days, of course, there’s often a grand arrival, grand entrance, that attends to the infrequent noticing of such peace by adults, so harried and fragile and fragmented have we become. Though even that is all right, more than all right. We take whatever peace that parks, and open space, and wild nature—or, some days, any kind of nature at all—can bring to us, having traveled so far from the territory of childhood.
What uncoiled with me, over the years, so that eventually in order to know a deeper peace, I required the experience of tens or even hundreds of thousands of acres, where once only six or seven had been sufficient? Such mysteries are perhaps only of interest to our own individual selves, intensely personal and intensely specialized: but they matter. I find it wonderful that nature in no way means the same thing to any two of its admirers. For my own part, however, it is when I am in the wilderness that I perceive, seemingly all of a sudden, that despite being insignificant in the world, I am most fully engaged with the world. Watching a sunset, or standing in an old forest, I feel, paradoxically, despite my insignificance, more fully a participant: and in that realization, it will occur to me then that for some time, without my even knowing it, I had not been feeling that inclusiveness.
I sometimes wonder if this issue of the universal loneliness that whispers to all of us in one form or fashion, and visits each of us at one time or another, has often to do with the fact of whether we are willing to accept ourselves as a part of the earth, or apart from it. It’s a big question, and I could be wrong.
In such remembrances of our utter insignificance, and of the natural world’s grandeurs, a certain fundamentalist fervor will come over me in a wave, briefly. The words of Ecclesiastes might come to mind, where it is written, “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yet, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast”—or even the jeremiad of Jeremiah himself, who lamented “The peaceable habitations are cut down”—but mercifully, then—or at least I think it is a kindness, a mercy – the moment will pass, and I will be lulled like so many of the rest of us back into thinking that nature is no big deal, and that there is no mystery, no divinity behind the veil: no miracle in the scrimwork of beetles, no divinity in the design of a single feather or a single seed. In my return to that lulled condition, the mountain will appear once more as only a mountain, and the swamp as only a swamp.
So what if we hacksaw the topskull off of the mountain, or drain away the swamp’s heart? It’s just a living thing, and it’s certainly nothing nearly so grand as any one of our own wonderful bright-burning short-lived individual selves, six billion of us marching across those mountains, marching across those swamps and through those forests, yearning for a kind of eternity that the earth already possesses, has always possessed in the seed-heart of the universe.
Other times, I snap out of that lull, that narcotized twenty-first century trance, and ask myself, What is holy, and what is the nature of hope, and how does one conduct one’s self in the presence, the midst, of certain loss?
Against such crush of domesticity—of homogeneity, and the destiny of more and more concrete—does one seek to maintain pragmatic dignity, and to achieve successes where we can, in scattered little six- and seven-acre gardens? If the wild beauty of the made and physical natural world is lost or further compromised, then how much longer can the echoes of that beauty and innocence remain kindled in our own hearts? I suspect we won’t know the answer until it’s all gone: which makes, perhaps, those six-acre parks, and those 60,000-acre wildernesses, and those 6 million-acre ecosystems, all the more important.
I think also that beyond the questions or issues of dignity and self-preservation, there is an issue of reciprocity at play here. Call it debt, or honor, or noblesse oblige, or what-have-you, but it seems daily that there is a code of ethics, a code of conduct, with which we—Texans, Montanans, and all the rest of us—should address the earth, but that we have moved steadily away from that allegiance. Have been lured away, or distracted.
Beyond the glorious basics of having experienced the birthright of having known what it’s like to breathe clean air, to drink clean water, and to eat food not poisoned by any manner of toxins, I personally am grateful to the natural world for the gifts and lessons of imagination: gifts and lessons I’ve received in Texas as well as in Montana. Although I am many years removed from my childhood there, I am not so distant from the imagination which the park, and its living pulse, the bayou, nurtured in me, nor my gratitude to the landscape for that nurturing, for it has helped me pursue my avocation or calling of learning to become a writer: a task that begins anew each day, but whose genesis came in large part from having and knowing that green space, that open space, as a young person growing up in Houston during a time of turbulent change.
The wolves, elk and grizzlies that surround my cabin in Montana now are part and parcel, in my mind, and in my life, of the same fabric of life I grew up with near Memorial Park: the clatter of dry oak leaves in the fall during a weather-change; the delicate patter of skinks rustling on the forest floor; the summer-scold of fox and gray squirrels, the flashing tail of a deer, the quietude of rabbits, the ornamentation and endurance of box turtles…
I believe that landscape exists for reasons other than the immediate service it may provide to humans—whether for clean air and water filtration, noise abatement, spiritual renewal, scientific discovery, and the provision of solitude and solace. Landscape is in my opinion its own element in the world, deserving of protection and respect beyond the values it provides us both in the short term as well as long term—but when I think of Buffalo Bayou, I cannot help but think selfishly of all that it has given me, at all the different times of my life, in all seasons and emotions, and I like to think that there are many others, in far different professions and walks of life, who have also benefited from the bayou’s grace and presence.
I like to think that the sum, the tapestry, of those benefits is quite a remarkable and durable, wondrous thing, like that of a great city, culture or civilization.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to be children in Texas were “wild and powerful in our innocence,” as Paul Christensen writes. I remember passing by “Wolf Corner,” out on the Katy Prairie, each Sunday morning on the way to church, and viewing that week’s tally of coyotes and red wolves which had been trapped and shot and poisoned, then flung over the barbed-wire corner fence post: a rogue’s gallery of wildness hanging upside down as if watching us on our way to church, placed there perhaps as illuminated examples of how near lay the errant path of sin—how fiercely narrow that path was, and how wild and ravening the rest of the world beyond still was, to the west, at least, if no longer in all directions.
The wind would ruffle the fur of those dead beautiful creatures. They were almost always there—the land seemed to keep giving up an inexhaustible supply of them—until finally, as I grew older, it was not the wolves and coyotes that disappeared, but the prairie at Wolf Corner itself: though still I did not know rage, nor really even sadness. I knew only hope and imagination, believed only in boundlessness and possibility—and always, it was the image, the fabric, of a wild and uncompromising nature—or my perception thereof—that nurtured such seeds in me.
I was not always in a wilder nature, while growing up, but I saw it, frequently enough, and knew—believed—it was out there. That other world emanated from the lonely wind-stirred tails and neck-ruffs fluttering there on the fence at Wolf Corner, and from the soothing images of seemingly-endless rolls of the unbroken oak-and-juniper hills that framed the Balcones Escarpment, hills like mythic castle-walls rising above the jeweled city of Austin: a wilder, more heavenly nation lying to the north and west of there, and which barbarians could surely never storm. Here, too, as with Wolf Corner, I was mistaken—there was no permanence—but what was important, I submit, and valuable, was not “just” the gift of clean air and water and solace which that ill-fated open space bequeathed to me and every other Texan, but the gift of imagination, too: the simple, priceless lesson—a lesson that cannot be replicated—that Here is a place still unlike other places.
It was a lesson in enthusiasm—an enthusiasm for diversity—that was taught to all children, and all adults, growing up within sight and reach and knowledge of a swamp, or a redrock desert, or a Caprock vista, or a high plains prairie; an oak savannah, a juniper mesa, a Gulf tidal flat, a foggy pinewoods red-clay forest, a Big Bend without air pollution. It seemed to me that there was more of Texas, in those days, and that now there is less.
The mere act of witnessing involved an embracing of the virtues of gratitude. The wilder land helped make us into better people—it asked the best of us—though being human, we sometimes gave it our worst; sometimes intentionally, other times unintentionally. We have let too much of it—nearly the last of it—slip through our fingers.
There is still much to love. There will always be much to love. And in a time of war, are not those of us who hail from this most war-rent of states more in need than ever of finding issues and topics upon which to exercise that most human of talents, love? No other state in the Union possesses the blood history, the heritage of violence and disrepair, from which present-day Texas was born: no other state—not even the modern nation of Israel, as Texas historian T.R. Fehrenbach has pointed out, fought three running wars at once, during the genesis of statehood: the Indian wars, the Civil War, the War against Mexico, with aggressive sorties against us by Great Britain and Spain thrown into the mix for good measure.
If nothing else, nature teaches us that where we come from is what and who we are, and from such a history of tearing-apart, it seems to me to be past time, these 168 years later, to roll up our sleeves and begin considering new stories of reassembly. Any culture can tear down or otherwise ransack the treasures that preceded that culture’s arrival. The real talent lies in putting broken things back together. And in the natural world, in Texas, we have an ample list of broken-apart things to choose from as we consider—if we consider—the reassembly.
With regard to the questions of “What to save?” and “Where to act? Where to begin the reassembly?”—I suspect that perhaps the most compelling case to be made might involve that most necessary and precious and limiting of resources, water—for the most part, that which we have not pumped dry and squandered, we have poisoned or at least tainted—but that is a concern of the flesh, and while we still have the brief opportunity to consider such indulgences, I would like to make a case for preserving not just the concerns of our flesh—clean air, and clean water—for those challenges will be coming with ever-increasing frequency, soon enough—but of the spirit, as well, and of the need, the legacy as well as birthright, of Texans to have open space: for our minds, our imagination and our sanity, in addition to serving as an anchor and stabilizer upon all our other needs.
This, as much as the native wildness of the West, is what I am most grateful for. In wild nature and the open spaces of the West, I still experience the pure democracy of nature, with the full sophistry of billions of years of accords and discords integrated into one moment, and one place; and, given sufficient space, I sometimes feel a part of that natural, more graceful and yet mysterious world.
It remains an elegant world, and for me, at least, and many others, it remains a portal, an avenue, to the world of imagin
tion. I’ve often wondered at this paradox, at how something so primal and elemental, so tangible and physical, can be linked so inextricably to its seeming shadow-opposite, the ethereal of the imagination. It seems to make no sense, to defy logic: how the sight, the fact, of the bioluminescence of a firefly, or the touch of a curve of granite, or a certain clean scent of beach salt—the tangible, in all its essential glory—can ignite the intangible of the imagination, both in memories and in dreams—but time and again it does, as if one must feed the other. And whether the physical world depends upon the spirit, or the spirit upon the physical, the world’s philosophers have wrangled forever, with no clear decision. For my own part, I would choose to hedge my bets, and proceed on the assumption that they feed each other.
How, over such a relatively short period of time, did we Texans go from being one of the most wide-open, unbounded and creative states to one of the most congested and space-impoverished, with the least amounts of open-space per capita among our urban centers of any state in the country? How have we allowed ourselves to run nearly out of water, how did we convert freedom and strength into captivity, dependence, vulnerability and weakness?
And just as importantly, what path might exist, or be made, to lead us out of this current situation, and back into a culture of strength and possibility, if not innocence?
Fehrenbach has noted that historically, Texans viewed land rather than knowledge as the source of all wealth. In the old days, when there was so much bounty—the spoils of war—that seems certainly to have been the case. And more recent economic models seem to suggest that the latter model is the one that bears the most fruit now.
But I want to suggest that we consider a third way, a sort of land-spirit hybrid—a more mature and experienced melding of the two—and to suggest that a culture that makes a new commitment to open spaces, and the creative spirit, and acknowledges with greater humility—not always a typical Texas virtue, I understand—the mysteries and power and, indeed, sacredness of nature might in the long run become the wealthiest yet—economically, perhaps, but spiritually, physically and emotionally, almost for certain.
These kinds of discussions—these yearnings—cannot be jump-started into the sausage-grind of legislation; cannot be fitted, at first, into code and structure. In their nascent reawakening, they have little—for now—to do with tax law or subsidies. The yearning is beneath all these things and is somehow a part of these things, but where it begins, or re-begins, is in the spirit, and in conversations among friends and family and neighbors. The old Texas virtue of storytelling and imagination has perhaps its greatest challenge—how to put the pieces back together, how to fix our damaged things? In our entire vast and great state, we have only one remaining unprotected roadless area of public land greater than 4000 acres in size. In this, we are one of the poorest states in the nation. How did we go from being the richest to among the poorest, and what does it portend for our future, if we do not address this absence as well as this hunger?
In Montana, we are still arguing about specifics—about the fate and importance of a certain species of trout, a certain and magnificent species of bear, a certain and magnificent type of forest.
In Texas, I think we need to start almost all the way over, however, and renew a dialogue with the basic elements. Air, water, earth, space, and the spirit, the fire, that emanates from the conjunction, the divine weaving, of these things, and which has made each of us who we are.
We can never go back to where we were, but we can dream and build new cultures of generosity, tolerance and vision. We can still, even at this late date, transcend nostalgia, loss and regret, can transcend even the burden of longing and make our way like long-lost travelers back to a real and physical world of vermilion flycatcher, black bear and bunting.
It is a long way back to such freedoms, this path from the imagined back to the real, but it is a journey the writers in this book believe is worth traveling, and have begun; and even in these often dark and frequently frightening days I am comforted when I consider how easy and natural the first step of such a journey is, and where in each of us it begins. There is the grand mystery of outer space, beyond the arc of the atmosphere, and, at present, beyond the arc of knowing. But there is the mystery too—and the gift of imagination—in the more modest arc of space that extends, still, in some places, to something as simple yet rare as an uncontested, undeveloped or undamaged horizon, or a grove of green.
There are things still to be found in that open space, or in that grove, or along that creek—valuable things, deserving of honor and respect—and seen from a distance, it pleases me to realize that Texans are still laboring, sometimes against long odds, on their behalf.
Rick Bass is a widely published essayist and novelist on environmental subjects. Among his books are The Book of Yaak (1996), The New Wolves: The Return of the Mexican Wolf to the American Southwest (1998), and The Roadless Yaak: Reflections and Observations about One of Our Last Wilderness Areas (2002). For more information about Wings Press, see www.wingspress.com.