Pride of Place: A Contemporary Anthology of Texas Nature Writing
For Henry David Thoreau, it was the rare sighting of the flower of a white pine. As he wrote he “Walking” (1862), he shinnied up the tall tree and “discovered new mountains in the horizon which I had never seen before—so much more of the earth and the heavens.” That long view did not compare to what caught his eye close up: “a few minute and delicate red conelike blossoms, the fertile flower of the white pine looking heavenward,” an arboreal sacrament.
For conservationist Aldo Leopold, it was the tiny Draba. The “smallest flower that blows,” he noted in Sand County Almanac (1949), the bible of modern ecological thought, it “will sprinkle every sandy place with small blooms.” But only the attentive glimpse its presence: “He who hopes for spring with upturned eye never sees so small a thing as Draba. He who despairs of spring with downcast eye steps on it, unknowing. He who searches for spring with his knees in the mud finds it, in abundance.”
For Barbara Nelson, it is the “short, bunched, and dust colored” grama grasses of the Chihuahuan Desert. As she observes in Pride of Place: A Contemporary Anthology of Texas Nature Writing, “Passers-through sometimes cannot see” what those who live within this terrain can sense: This “dry, hot, and mute” landscape is unexpectedly vivid and vocal, but only if you are aware that at sundown “the late evening bathes the land in fuzzy gold.” Desert colors, she explains, “are not aggressive. They don’t compete, they don’t shout. They steal your heart with a whisper.”
Regardless of setting, irrespective of environment, and despite differences in generation and gender, ferment and temperament, those who have best written about Nature (or nature) have had a profound sense of the finite; small is beautiful. That sensibility claims its own truth, but also counters a culture that is long on brag: from a Declaration of Independence that dared speak of the “self evident” equality of all men (an inconvenient claim, now and again) to an outlandish sense of humor, a bleating self-importance evoked in tales about Davy Crockett, reconfigured by Mark Twain, and recast in the “Kings of Comedy.” For this Chosen People there is a special land, an exaggeration reflected in the near life-sized canvas on which Albert Bierstadt tried to capture the immense scale of the Rockies and Sierra, and on which Clyfford Still abstracted the vastness of western plain and sky. To speak well of flowers unseen and grasses invisible in a society that finds self-aggrandizing comfort in the Grand Canyon is something of a democratic dare.
Had David Taylor sketched out some of these broader cultural traditions and tensions, Pride of Place might have made a more significant contribution to our understanding of those who have written so evocatively of Texas. Certainly his contributors readily point to their diverse intellectual origins. Thoreau pops up regularly (and his “Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” seems the unacknowledged basis for Taylor’s chapter, “Paddling the Urban Sprawl of North Texas). Mark Twain, Edward Abbey, and Annie Dillard make appearances, as does Jed Clampett, setting up a range of 19th- and 20th-century influences that frame the dialogues between these writers and their home grounds.
It would also help to know that nature writing in Texas did not start with Roy Bedichek. The naturalist tradition on which this well-read writer drew extended far back into the ancient world, but its Texan roots have some depth as well. The frontier naturalist Gideon Lincecum and that shrewd pre-Civil War traveler, Frederick Law Olmsted, set the stage for subsequent observers. Before these intrepid Anglos took note of what this land was made of, Spanish colonial settlements depended on those with a keen eye for nature and the ability to record its variations and import. Identifying such historical influences is essential to any volume that announces that it is a “contemporary” anthology. What makes it modern, presumably, is its relationship to an earlier time and literary perspective, and the distance it seeks to put between then and now. That’s something of a fool’s errand, for we are forever enveloped in the past’s embrace, as John Graves makes abundantly clear in his reluctance to clear away his collection of odds and ends: the “massive clutters in work and office” like those that have piled up “in attics and platforms under the barn roof and in any odd corner of our house…belong where they are as much as I do.” And should one morning “I walk into the barn and note that an accustomed item was not there…I would feel my little world’s foundations shudder slightly.”
Just so with a book’s intellectual scaffolding: It ought to be anchored in its past to provide a stable footing for its organizing structure. Yet Pride of Place is not as tied down, as coherent, as it could be. Start with the title, and Taylor’s odd justification for it: “The political boundaries and borders that define Texas are so vast and so diverse that an immense pride is a way to find common ground.” This explains why the state’s “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign has been so successful, he says, because its marketing narrative “reaffirms Texas mythology” while underscoring “a positive community concern,” leading us to clean up the land we love. A similar impulse apparently defines this volume. According to Taylor, “much of what holds these essays together comes from this story of Texas pride: that we and the landscape are important and worthy of pride, if not bravado.” Find a state in the union for which this is not true. (And because it is true from California to Maine, Alaska to Florida, what then does pride or bravado explain?)
More subtle and compelling is contributor Carol Cullar’s guiding principle of terroir, the unique qualities the French believe geography gives to place and perception. The Eagle Pass writer had an epiphany about its significance one morning when she poured water into a dusty heirloom kettle and was staggered by its pungent aroma: “I was enveloped by the odor, thrown back to Western Oklahoma from whence the family roots diverge, where the sandy road threaded across the railroad tracks, south to my grandfather’s farm…” Telling a friend of her experience, she learned “that the French have long known of the potent strength of the earth’s essence.”
Such essences vary across bioregion, leading each author in Pride of Place to grapple with the distinctions they unearth. Sharp-eyed Roy Bedichek noticed the proliferation of the vermilion flycatcher in Central Texas, an avian species known to love “two physiographic features not often found in conjunction, viz., a desert or semiarid terrain, contiguous to a body of still water.” Its numbers and range increased in response to New Deal environmental engineering that led to the proliferation of earthen water tanks for livestock. The flycatcher was not alone in adapting to this particular work of man, and Bedicheck’s essay, “Still Water,” amounts to a loving inventory of how minnows and water moccasins, dragonflies, and frogs, came to populate what had once been “a gentle impression in an old field which had been worn out and rendered useless by fifty years of unscientific cultivation.”
Other writers have found their niche in a niche. Pete Gunter’s environmental commitments unfolded in the Big Thicket of East Texas, that “ecological ark, possessing great biological diversity.” There, tutored by local sage Lance Rosier, he learned to see “a green, tangled subtropical land in a way I could not imagine on my own,” helping launch a political movement to preserve what was left and rehabilitate what had been devastated. Up in the Panhandle, Wyman Meinzer’s discovery of his literary impulse came in tandem with his Walden-like “life of solitude in a one-room half-dugout cabin with no running water or electricity deep in the canyon lands of the southern Plains.” Taylor plied the waterway of the Metroplex, where he grew up, wondering if “there is a language adequate to mourn the passing of marginal landscapes,” a query for which Marian Haddad has an answer. Born “under El Paso’s desert sky,” she found that “arid places of the southwestern part of our state have always held for me a constancy, an open slate of possibilities.”
Key among those opportunities is the chance to glimpse that second in time when the human and the natural converge. For El Paso poet Ray Gonzalez, it was the possibility that his “work was written at the exact instant the Rio Grande shifted course.” For Gary Clark, a devoted Houston birder, it was standing stock-still on a lek, awed by “the wondrous dance of Attwater’s prairie chicken.” And for Naomi Shihab Nye, it was “the long snake gliding smoothly down between the deck” of her just paid-off San Antonio abode. “I’ve never seen a snake in this yard in fifteen years,” she writes in her essay, “Home Address,” and “now the minute it’s all ours, surprise. He lives here too.”
But it was the thorny terrain of Maverick County that snagged Cullar’s attention. “If we drink the rainwater and the cistern water,” the executive director of the Rio Bravo Nature Center Foundation observes, “are our molecules not bound together with the rivers and the streams, the vegetable from the garden and the honey garnered from a million blooms?” She knows the answer is yes: “I have drawn these buttes for many a year. Those scarps are stored in the muscles of my fingers, the bones of my wrist. Bone-stored hills, buttes; and in my hand, muscled limestone.”
By writing herself into the land, Cullar invokes Thoreau’s rapture at the discovery of a tiny red flower atop a tall tree and Leopold’s quiet, prayerful reaction to the Draba’s ephemeral beauty. This deeply felt sensibility, and the enfolding union with nature it espouses, is key to recognizing the literary lineage of these small moments of great beauty.
Contributing Writer Char Miller teaches at Trinity University and is author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism and Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas.
I was sitting in a boring literature class one day, a shiny-faced, idealistic undergraduate, thinking about boys—only I had started calling them men. I was an Animal Science major, studying to become a ranch manager, or a cowboy’s wife, whichever came first. My college sat on the side of a mountain, as most colleges do so that college professors can look down upon the town from a lofty perch. So, I was watching buzzards out the classroom window, almost at eye level. The professor was asking us to decide whether Edward Abbey’s narrative voice should be classified as homodiegetic or autodiegetic—yawn.
The buzzards were putting me to sleep. Buzzards drift so aimlessly and effortlessly on thermals, especially in the hot rimrocked desert country of West Texas. But just as my eyelids were drooping, the big black birds seemed suddenly to change gears.
Instead of drifting, they begin to circle, they began to circle with more of a purpose. Is a cow dead down there on main street? I wondered if they had put to sleep the old cowboy, Nicasio Ramirez, who always sat on the corner in the sun. As the circle tightened, more and more buzzards appeared out of nowhere. First ten, then twenty, then I was watching 100, then 1000 buzzards circle right outside my classroom window. It was a once in a lifetime sight!
I raised my hand.
“Sir!” I stammered excitedly, “The buzzards are gathering to fly south right outside the window!
There are thousands of them!”
The professor frowned, told me to keep my mind in class and went on about Abbey. I changed my major to English that day. The professor probably thought his lecture had inspired me, and it did. I decided right there in that classroom, as the buzzards broke their circle and headed south, that I should be teaching Abbey.
One of my favorite images, which appears over and over in Ed Abbey’s books is a cowboy, riding along, spending his life and imagination looking at a shit-encrusted, fly-clouded, bouncing cow’s butt. Chuckle.
Western movies have always left the cowshit and horseshit out, ever notice that? Shit just doesn’t fit into the Western myth. Buffalo chips might be useful as fuel, but not cow chips—well, maybe in India, but not in the American West.
Anyone who doesn’t believe in cowshit would not want to brand Brammer calves—ever—even with the toe of their boot over the spout. They wouldn’t want to be hit by a cow tail when the yuccas are blooming, wouldn’t want to shove an arm up a heifer’s cervix to pull a calf, wouldn’t want to climb into crowding chutes when spring grass is green, wouldn’t like “mud” without rain, scours, flat rocks, scared wild cows—yup, real cows do shit, and I’ve spent a lot of years staring at their Southern ends. My imagination is probably ruined.
—Barbara “Barney” Nelson, “That One-Eyed Hereford Muley,” in Pride of Place: A Contemporary Anthology of Texas Nature Writing