University of Montana
“The crucial question of the modern world is ‘How are we to become native to this land?’ It is a question that history cannot answer, for history is the de-nativizing process.”
Paul Shepard (1.)
“Because history has made the nonhuman environment invisible, we do not understand the ecological impact of our social choices, nor how they will come back to haunt us.”
Stephanie Lahar (2.)
The 18th century propagandist and revolutionary, Thomas Paine, considered himself a quintessential Modernist, a citizen of the new world to come, contemptuous of most of the institutions of his time. Paine’s scorn wasn’t limited to monarchies and colonialism. The famous author of Common Sense was equally suspicious of local passions and attachments, among them “systems” that limited human citizenship to the soil, that implied that people were like vegetation, rooted to a spot and thus held to the parochial and narrow view of the world owned by the sunflower in the pasture. Such attachments Paine considered unsavory and undesirable--tribal, even. His life of motion, and gruel-thin allegiances to anything but ideas, seemed to him the coming wave, and in many respects he was right.
But try this to set Thomas Paine and his kind of world in perspective: attend the annual Corn
Dance at Santa Domingo Pueblo and feel the Earth shudder as 200 dancers thump rhythmically around
their dry plaza on a blazing August day with cottonball clouds in the blue sky. Or go to Shalako in Zuni
on a frosty Winter Solstice night when burning juniper perfumes the air with the olfactory signature of the
region, and peer in the windows of the houses to watch the dancers recreating for the 600th time their
linkage to the gods and forces of their bounded world. Do this, and wonder how much common sense
Thomas Paine really had. While Paine saw accurately the potential for a cloying and evil menace in state
nationalism, his view was too historical, too human-centered. He failed to grasp the timeless bonds, so
evident in the Southwest in the seasonal Puebloan ceremonies, that is the human legacy to nature and
place and local soil. Particularly Paine’s arguments against localism did not recognize the implications
for what we now call environmental stewardship. Paine may have been a prophet of the world to come,
but was his vision the right one?
* * *
A farm-to-market back road, West Texas, September 1978. Without consulting a map, I am not sure just where I am. It has been two days since I have left the oak savannahs bordering the Texas prairies, gathering up and moving my paltry possessions to alight 450 miles farther west, and 3,000 feet higher up, atop a country like no other in my experience. It is not the featurelessness of the surrounding plains I find so disorienting. In fact, the plowed ground stretching away everywhere like a corduroyed sheet as far as the eye can reach is not devoid of features. The surface, green with crops, seems literally tacked down by power lines marching away to sinking into the horizon. Silvery machinery linked by pipe to scattered V-8 automobile engines lurches insect-like across a scene possessing roughly the romance of a parking lot. Here and there a tree grove around a farmhouse or the odd windmill briefly challenges the overwhelming horizontality.
Taking in this scene, it comes to me after a moment: what I am finding so massively disorienting here is the almost total absence of natural signals. I stand in the grass along a remote highway and listen for bird song, look for tracks or trails in the brown dirt, repeatedly suck in lungs full of air to test for living scent. But except the keening of a sere wind surging through a million cotton plants with a sound like surf, and the acrid smell of ammonia fertilizer, there is nothing but sky. For miles.
This place I have moved to seems at this encounter a lifeless shell, the juices and the joy sucked
out of it by some immense parasite whose form I cannot see but whose name I know well. Shocked at this
realization, I stand in the wind at the edge of the road and spin slowly around in every direction, like a
top, the wonder escalating with each rotation. What quality can I possibly find here that would make me
want to embrace the place? How to envision this country in a way that brings me into its community?
How in hell to go native here?
* * *
What I moved to in 1978, expecting I know not what, was ground-zero of the Horizontal Yellow. It was called, and still is, El Llano Estacado, and what little I knew of its reputation then was linked with phrases like “flat as a table,” “Buckle of the Bible Belt,” and “ghastly dust storms.” But lifeless? National agribusiness sacrifice area? No one had mentioned those. Like most people who come to the Llano Estacado from somewhere far away, I came looking for the West of history, and what I found was the West of Thomas Paine’s Modernist world.
Let me tell you now what I didn’t know then. A terrestrial leviathan, the Llano Estacado is too enormous a landform to have its full measure grasped by mere Earthlings. But seen from above and from sufficient height, the Llano Estacado assumes a recognizable form--and that form is the sedimentary version of an irregular, oblong pancake plopped down in a skillet. Look at it on a raised-relief map, and the skillet’s left rim becomes the Southern Rocky Mountains. There is no right rim, for beyond the right edge of the pancake all is eaten away and down. There are names for topographies like this. If they’re small enough, in the Southwest we call them mesas. The huge ones, like the Llano Estacado, we call plateaus or tablelands.
The Llano tableland’s dimensions and vital statistics can be set down on paper easily enough. It lies between North latitude 32 and 35 1/2 degrees, and West longitude 101 and 104 degrees. It is roughly 300 miles north/south by 150 miles east/west, a bit shy of 50,000 square miles altogether. At its northwest corner it is 5,000 feet above the sea, 2,500 feet above where the Colorado River drains off its southeastern edge, for a surface slope of approximately nine feet per mile, slight enough to be imperceptible to the eye. The rim of its escarpment stands 200 to 800 feet above the surrounding rolling plains. Wild oscillations of climate here in the rainshadow of the Rockies mist the Llano with an average 16 inches of precipitation a year along the Mescalero Escarpment (the plateau’s western edge) to nearly 20 inches in the Caprock canyonlands (the eastern edge). Three major Southwestern rivers--the Red, the Brazos, and the Colorado- -gather the infrequent deluges into headwaters atop the Llano Estacado. Another pair of rivers, the Canadian and Pecos, skirt the plateau’s edges. For most of recorded history this country has been considered ecologically a part of the Southern High Plains, but in our time Chihuahuan Desert species have advanced to within 100 miles of its sandy southern border. Such are the Llano Estacado’s essential statistics in three-dimensional space.
But to create the human place called El Llano Estacado requires that culture and history be added to space. The Llano Estacado was named that by New Mexicans, who embarked eastward from Santa Fe, Espanola, and Taos on trading, hunting, herding, and eventually homesteading expeditions. For 200 years they journeyed effortlessly to and across the Llano’s immense spaces, mounting La Ceja (the rimrock’s “eyebrow”) and confronting without apparent fear the runeless slate extending beyond the curve of the earth. The Llano was considered a part of Nuevo Mejico until the Compromise of 1850 accommodated the Republic of Texas’s pretensions by dividing the Llano between Texas and New Mexico, a political situation that has existed ever since.
The name El Llano Estacado (“The Staked Plain”) is as satisfyingly mysterious as it is euphonious. Llano (“yah-no”) properly conveys the horizontal in Spanish, but estacado could refer to anything involving a stake--stakes marking trails across a featureless surface, the place without trees where horses had to be staked, a plain pulled so flat it seemed staked at the edges. After walking ten miles across a relict Llano prairie on a deliriously hot June day in 1993, my gut feeling is that the name refers to the Llano’s once monotonous prospect of shortgrass verdure sprinkled into infinity with the stiff flowerstalks of thousands of yuccas. But the truth is that neither I nor anyone else really knows any more.
The history since 1850 has been a bit less romantic and considerably more coldly calculative. For better than 35 years after Anglo cattlemen ran the Hispanos off the Llano in the 1870s, all this was ranching country and men like Charles Goodnight and C. C. Slaughter were feudal kings. Then from about 1910 until 1930, the last remaining--that is, the most marginal--lands on the Great Plains were privatized through the federal homestead laws and the sale of the XIT Ranch. The big breakout had commenced; row crop agriculture had come to the Llano. It’s not that the Llano hadn’t experienced ecological revolutions before. Many of its animal species, the great Pleistocene bestiary that made the Llano the American Serengeti, had been killed off by the first human arrivals 100 centuries before. Major drought pulses had transformed it into a desert of drifting sands many times during the long span of time since. And well before the Big Breakout, hunters, ranchers, just plain folks, even the Indians, had engaged in a wildly successful war of obliteration against the remaining native bison, wolves, bears, mountain lions, prairie dogs, eagles, and ravens of a 10,000 year-old shortgrass ecology.
But if the shooting war was a holocaust, the rowcrop transformation was Modernism’s scorched earth mop-up. Since the 1920s, atop its surface the Llano Estacado has lost well over 75% of its grass to conversion to cotton, wheat, and sorghum. All that immense carpet of buffalograss, oceans of blue grama, millions of yuccas, and all the community that went with them. Erased. From their sacrifice have come cities--Lubbock, Amarillo, Clovis, Portales, Roswell, Hobbs--universities, libraries, more than half a million people living a pretty well-off American lifestyle, thank you, as the Llano Estacado yields up its lifejuices to the global market. The general point of view of the present human residents is that the whole enterprise has been a pretty smashing success. It was resilient enough to survive what was probably a fairly mild drought pulse in the 1930s, although without the grassland community there to intervene, the pulse produced a devastating collapse (in human terms) called the Dust Bowl. The rowcrop phase also has been ingenious enough to tap the fossil aquifer lying beneath the Llano, and that Amazonian volume has enabled West Texas and the “Little Texas” Llano of New Mexico to become even wealthier, to survive dry pulses in the 1950s and 1970s, to thrive in high cotton--so long as the water lasts.
Yet the Anglo-American rowcrop experiment on the Llano Estacado has produced, as its direct result, an impoverishment beyond measure, one certainly beyond the comprehension of those reared to places where nature was never such victim. Simply, few places in North America, and none in the Southwest, can match the losses in the natural world that tragically disadvantage the present Llano Estacado. Except along the escarpments and in the canyons, where country too rough to transform has left 10-20 mile-wide biological corridors stretching hundreds of miles around the plateau’s perimeter, wildness has been almost entirely purged from the 20th century Llano Estacado.
Perhaps Llano residents, like our fantasy New Yorkers or Angelenos or residents of Mexico City,
have spun a way of life that does not need wildness and the native natural world in it. I have often
suspected, in my struggle to re-imagine the Llano Estacado in a way that could make possible my own
allegiance to it, that most of its present natives could care less. Drug them with sports and Sunday schools
and Cadillacs and malls and chain restaurants, and you’ve met the requisites of the good life in Hobbs,
Portales, and Plainview. The problem with such lives is that the Modernist reality carries with it a future
consonant with the nature alienation at its core, and here on the Llano that future includes a disappearing
aquifer, repeated pounding from droughts and dust, and the return of desert as the global climate warms.
Like much of the world, the citizens of the modern Llano Estacado might find cause to need the
old wildness in ways they have yet to recognize.
* * *
A century ago a vision quest might have been the only way to grasp the most essential thing about the Llano Estacado; today mundane airplane travel will also do it. Fly above the Llano’s screaming winds and look down on the toybox geometry of agribusiness’s plowed circles and squares, or the serrated edges where this plateau breaks off into bright badlands and canyons. From height its historical and cultural ties vanish. What remains is inescapable: This plateau straddling Texas and New Mexico is a distinct entity. Connected from the rest of the world, it nonetheless stands apart. Its topographical life exists in the slow-motion of geological time. It was there long before the two states that claim it existed, and of course it will outlast them, and us.
To employ a new term for an old idea, the Llano Estacado is a bioregion, a place where nature has fashioned lifeforms and suggestions for living unlike those elsewhere. Having turned the place inside out, we have a long way to go to now re-create an environmentally and humanly healthy Llano Estacado. But there is a philosophy and worldview that might save the place.
I mean the modern philosophy of living in place called Bioregionalism. Perhaps I am entirely
wrong. Perhaps my neighbors in Lubbock and Clovis really don’t need contact with the Llano’s natural
community, or a sense of their function in nature. The present culture has deeply internalized a
conservative and Christian worldview that appears to regard itself as outside nature and the natural world
as superfluous, so it may well be that Bioregionalism will play no role at all in Llano Estacado history.
But as an 18-year inhabitant who has made a conscious effort to go native here, I have the right to say it: I
think, for reason, that the sooner the Llano’s Texans and New Mexicans embrace a community sense of
place based on the natural world, the sooner this canyonated tableland will regain an ecological and
psychological balance dangerously in tilt for three-quarters of a century.
* * *
For five years I sought connection to the Llano Estacado through history, and through names. History, particularly the long history of Llano/human interaction going back 11,000 years, gave me a sense of my personal occupation of space as merely the most recent bead on a very long string, which is to say, it inverted any sense of “ownership” between me and earth. The names were an entry point of a different kind, not just into history, but into familiarity. My names, I realized soon, were not the names that inspired the good Baptists around me, who spoke words like Amarillo, Big Spring, Roswell, Lamb, Dawkins, Randall, JA, XIT, Bell. Those city, county, ranch names resonated not in my ears.
But these came to: Running Water Draw, Palo Duro, Courthouse Mountain, Tucumcari Mesa, Alamosa Canyon, Tule Canyon, Mulberry Canyon, Indian Creek Canyon, Tierra Blanca Draw, Dead Negro Draw, Double Mountains, Flattop Mountain, Canadian Breaks, Yellow House Canyon, Rocky Dell, Landergin Mesa, Cowhead Mesa, Turkey Mesa, Blanco Canyon, Dockum Creek Canyon, Sandhills, Blackwater Draw, Sunday Canyon, Pease, Little Red, Wolf Creek, Antelope Creek, Permian, Triassic, Trujillo, Dockum, Ogallala.
And these: sideoats grama, sand bluestem, blue grama, buffalograss, little bluestem, Tahoka daisy, Indian blanket, basketflower, croton, beebalm, sand lily, lemon sumac, skunkbush sumac, catclaw acacia, peavine, algerita, mesquite, netleaf hackberry, wild china, Rocky Mountain juniper, Pinchot juniper, pinon mouse, kangaroo rat, painted bunting, sandhill crane, canyon wren, scrub jay, yucca, tree cholla, Klein cholla, desert Christmas cholla, stavation prickly pear, candelaria, cougar, bobcat, coyote, Texas gray wolf, Plains lobo wolf, black bear, bison, and mustang. And, Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, Southern Cheyenne, Kiowa-Apache, Pueblo, and Jumano.
But knowing the history and knowing the names are not enough. It has all come to me eventually as this: knowledge is insufficient of itself to enable humans to open to a place as home. Knowledge is too cerebral. Experiential, sensuous immersion--the way we’ve always done it--is the path home.
Confronting what seemed a dead world on the Big Flat of the Llano’s surface, the only recourse
to going native on the late-20th century Llano Estacado was to go face-to-face with the right-angle
verticality of its escarpment. With 750 miles of encircling scarp and hundreds (if someone took the time
to count) of canyons and draws trailing down from the bordering rims of the Caprock and Mescalero
escarpments, this was where the remnants of the ancient, 5,000 year-old High Plains ecology resided after
a century of Euroamerican inhabitation. Here, where the horizontal linearity of the plains breaks off into
a sudden, rival linearity of the vertical, what remained of the Llano’s ancient natural essence survived in a
thin and precarious strip. Having almost all been privatized, scarcely enough of it was accessible to lay a
foundation for Bioregionalism. But this was all that remained.
* * *
The top surface of the Llano Estacado is a world where ground and sky comprise the two 180 degree halves of a circle. To approach the edge of the plateau is to effect a 90 degree rotation to the vertical at near warp speed. That first 400 feet of Llano Estacado vertical comes at you in a series of stairsteps: across the plain and off the Caprock rim, slide, then off the chalky Ogallala cliff, slide, then off the tan stone of the Trujillo wall, slide, then to the top of the Dockum sandstone, and . . . good-bye!, a final 200 feet of freefall into the abyss, time for a fleeting few last thoughts before kissing the mesquites and boulders down where a stream like the Little Red River flows.
Of course there’s a better way to do it, and this better way is what has brought David Keller and me to this fiery-red turreted cliff we call the Big Red Wall, deep in the marrow of Texas’s Caprock Canyons State Park, in June of 1993. We’ve come here in the heat and blaze of a summer midday to confront the Llano Estacado as home place. As natives (David was born here; I’m naturalized), we’re here for sensuous inscendance, spiritual transcendance’s opposite. And full inscendance, for us on this day, involves descending that last 200 feet on a rope, our faces inches from the sandstone, acknowledging fully on the level of the senses the way in which the Llano Estacado stands separate from the rest of the world.
Atop the Big Red Wall there is no mistaking that you are on an edge. Downcanyon there is a descending ribcage of cliffs angling into the Rolling Plains, and you know that somewhere out there beyond the curve of the earth the country eventually changes, acquires forests, drains the very waters that spill off these cliffs clear to the Gulf of Mexico. Upcanyon the early afternoon backlighting in the Llano Estacado’s wettest month gives the country a deceptively green and lush aspect. Now the spires and cliffs seem to be emerging from a spreading green mold. But look more closely and bare rock, bare ground, suspended dust motes in the air all supply evidence of a desert stamp that lies upon the plain above like a lengthening shadow.
The Big Red Wall is actually a fluted sandstone fin with a knife-blade top only about 12 feet across. It grows only a single mesquite and one scrubby sumac, so we drive in two rebar stakes to add an extra margin of safety, do bowline knots around everything in sight, and then toss the rope off into empty space, listening to its hiiisssss over the ledge, gaining velocity. David goat-hops around to a point where he can confirm that the end of the rope has reached the ground below. It has, and so it is time to lose elevation. In a hurry.
I am going first. I slip on the harness and double-cinch its belt, loop the rope through the alloy figure-8, and attach the figure-8 to my harness with a device rappellers and climbers call a locking-D. A raven sails the cliffs, lazing around in the thermals, mustering only a single caw at half-minute intervals. I briefly entertain then dismiss the thought that a harness failure and about three seconds could lift this raven’s life out of the doldrums, switch off the depressive and flip on the manic behind its lidded eyes. But actually I’ve rappelled this and other cliffs here numerous times, and know how safe it is.
It is easily 100 degrees today, and the 3 p.m. wind seems to surge right out of the ground, whining familiarly through the sandstone teeth of the canyon, defying gravity by carrying dust swirls up the faces of these brilliant cliffs. To think of heat at a moment like this is diversionary, I have to admit, but it is goddamned hot, almost preternaturally hot, as it seems to be every summer in the Llano Estacado country these days. But I’m all rigged out now, and everything is double-checked, so I back to the edge of the plunge, feel the sun on my back, feel it on my legs and arms. There are three cottony white summer clouds directly overhead. Otherwise the sky is Southwestern blue, the color of turquoise jewelry, and leaning back and trailing my eyes down the long rope as it snakes groundward I am conscious mostly of gleaming, heat-radiating red, with a stippling of a strong, pure green that I know is juniper.
The national flag of the Llano Estacado ought to be a tri-color: the deep red of the sandstone escarpment, the deep blue of the blank dome above, the deep green of the junipers that live here in numbers indicating fulsome adaptation to place.
Then it is into the ether, an extreme interpenetration for the mere seconds that most epiphanies last, doing the dance that David and I call “the vertical moonwalk.” It is a dancestep consisting primarily of great, hopping, 20-foot bounds in a graced slow-motion, and in between getting up close and intimate with rock geology that otherwise can only be gazed at wistfully, never caressed, smelled, tasted. As I flex and prepare to spring outward and down the ribs of the Llano Estacado, it comes to me that our vertical moonwalk is in reality a kind of windup, like a pitcher’s motion.
A windup for what? Why, for staking ourselves into that blazing red earth, of course.
* * *
Walter Prescott Webb never used the term bioregion, but I have no doubts at all that he would have intuitively understood its meaning. With its chapters on Great Plains literature as well as its well- known paeans to the adaptive advantages of technology like Colt revolvers, windmills, barbed wire to life on the grasslands, Webb’s famous classic, The Great Plains, is in some ways a proto-bioregional book. Interestingly, too, when Webb characterized the Great Plains as a unique North American environment whose defining stamp was its flatness, its treelessness, and its dryness, he recognized the Llano Estacado as perhaps the supreme example across the Western plains of all those qualities.
Webb was sort of an academic who, like all of us, was steeped in the worldviews of the culture surrounding him. And intellectually, that was a Darwinian worldview that caused him to see human cultures as organisms, shaped by unique environments just as plant and animal species were. I suspect that Webb would have seen the word “bioregion” as a useful term for his art. On the other hand, neither Webb nor most contemporary Southwesterners would readily infer from bioregion the philosophy of Bioregionalism. Yet Bioregionalism’s underlying premises are very old, because what this late 20th century American philosophy stands for is a relationship with nature that links us back to the good green world of our Paleolithic consciousness. The word’s linguistic roots--bio (“of life”) and regionalism (“of region”)--are self-explanatory, but their combination into a philosophy appears to have had its genesis in the early 1970s with the writings of a Canadian, Allen Van Newkirk. Over most of the next two decades the Bioregional movement has been most closely associated with California and with the famous poet Gary Snyder, historian Raymond Dasmann, writers Peter Berg and Stephanie Mills, and Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand.
As set forth in Bioregionalism’s official publications, CoEvolution Quarterly and Raise the Stakes, Bioregionalism has come to stand for what its head druid, Peter Berg, calls “a kind of spiritual identification with a particular kind of country and its wild nature [that is] the basis for the kind of land care the world so definitely needs.” If their occasional congresses, held all over the country (including one in Texas) since 1974, might strike the average resident of the Llano Estacado as a cross between Woodstock and a Cowboy Camp Revival, and the participants as a bunch of New Age pollyannas preaching the jargon of mysti-speak, then re-evaluate. Scholar James Parsons, writing in the staid academic journal, The Professional Geographer, asserted in 1985 that while Bioregionalists might seem like “misty-eyed visionaries,” in fact the movement was attracting “a remarkably sensitive, literate group of adherents” who might well “be the unwitting architects of a new popular geography, a grass roots geography with ‘heart.’”
What Bioregionalism promotes ought to be attractive, in fact, to anyone on the cusp of the new century who is troubled by the size, the complexity, the sameness, and the impersonal qualities of the world that Modernism has built. At Bioregionalism’s foundation is the argument that humans are after all animals, whose evolutionary trajectory for 99% of our time on Earth has been spent as gatherer- hunters living in bands of 125-150 that were deeply conversant with small pieces of the world. Even after the Neolithic Revolution, generations of related people continued to live in and learn intimately even more limited slices of the planet, and they built up a cultural legacy (primarily transmitted in stories associated with local landscapes) that produced adaptive packages of “captured knowledge” about the settings they inhabited. If our social lives for the bulk of our time as primate species teaches anything, it is that staying in place and interacting in small communities is what evolution has prepared us for.
Bioregionalism thus implies that living removed from the natural world, residing in the
enormous congregations of people and built environment that are modern cities, eschewing roots in place
for endless relocation, all lurk darkly in the gut of the Modernist psychosis. Thomas Paine’s vision of a
dislocated humanity was prophetic; current statistics indicate that more than 20% of the American
population re-locates every year! A fundamental alienation from the natural world that envelopes us,
Bioregionalism asserts, has controverted human nature as evolution crafted it. Our best chance for animal
sanity--and the best chance for the animals--is for us to get it back.
* * *
Once out of curiosity I asked the students in a class in one of the Horizontal Yellow’s largest universities whether they grew up thinking of themselves as citizens of the Llano Estacado, citizens of the Great Plains, or citizens of Texas. “Texas,” they answered in unison. Just so. In America, political boundaries, capitalist consumerism, popular culture, rapid transportation, the disinclination to stay put-- and radio and television’s tendency to erode regional distinctiveness--have worked hard to scrub clean whatever ecological sense of belonging to place we ever had. And professional history, with its tendency to regard local history as insignificant and interest in place as antiquarian, has contributed to our reduction into a one-shade monoculture where everywhere is like everywhere else.
But think of it this way: “Texas” as an entity may have validity historically, but ecologically Texas is a cobbled-together creation consisting of parts of ten distinctive bioregions. The Llano Estacado is one of these--the Texas High Plains Province as biologists and geographers who have mapped out the state refer to it. The boundaries of these ten provinces have nothing really to do with watersheds, but with shared ecology and (particularly with one like the Llano Estacado) to some extent physiography. The only real question about the Llano is where the ecological boundaries between it and the Rolling Plains below the plateau occur. Some mapmakers want to include the Llano’s canyonated perimeter as a subregion of the Rolling Plains. But the long story of the human animal here argues rather for the reverse, that the Llano and its canyons were always thought of as something like a holistic yin/yang held together by what each contributed. When the Kiowa I-See-O spoke before a crowd of Amarillo pioneers in 1924, he so considered the country: “For a long time it has come back to us in wishes, this great prairie and these beautiful canyons.” Note his pronoun: It.
A condensation of the ideas in books like geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s Topophilia and Space and Place, Desmond Morris’s The Territorial Imperative, Diane Ackermann’s A Natural History of the Senses, and Winnifred Gallagher’s The Power of Place, explains how affiliations to more abstract political bodies can arise from the territoriality that lies deep in the reptilian cores of our brains. The evidence is that human evolution is so tied to topography, that our multiple senses continue such rich receptors and our brains such vivid recallers of natural signals, that humans in fact react most emotionally to smaller and more familiar slices of the world. Our natural inclination of attachments actually occurs on an ascending scale of sizes: to hearth and home most of all, then to locale, finally to more artificial creations like states and nations. What Tuan calls “topophilia” happens most naturally, given sufficient time and familiarity, in places small enough to be learned well--local landscapes of familiar rocks and soils, the recalled sounds of local birds, the peculiar cycle of seasons, of weather and plants and animal behavior, as we observe them again and again in specific places. A patriotic affection for a historical idea like Texas is merely the political and commercial subversion of those kinds of instincts.
Bioregionalists have seized most ardently on what they call “watershed consciousness” as the organizing principle of human attachment to localized nature. They point particularly to 19th century scientist John Wesley Powell’s unrealized hopes to organize the American West around 125-140 commonwealths based on regional watersheds. In the early 1890s Powell actually produced a series of maps delineating the boundaries of those watersheds, divvying modern New Mexico, for example into as many as nine different commonwealths premised on the way the rivers flow. The country from today’s Pecos Wilderness southward across the state into Trans-Pecos Texas, as one example, was designated a potential commonwealth centering around the Pecos River and its tributaries. What Powell was attempting to do was to organize the arid West around the irrigation principles that drove Pueblo, Hispano, and Mormon cultures. Even if Congress and the various states and territories were unimpressed, he had some valid points. From the perspective of water organization and manipulation, watersheds are crucial in most arid lands, and Bioregionalism is probably correct to emphasize them.
But while awareness and care for local rivers ought to be fundamental to the philosophy of Bioregionalism, watersheds don’t really work as an organizing principle for nature-based community affiliation across much of the Horizontal Yellow. The draws and canyons of the Llano Estacado’s rivers are powerful shapers of life, but today most of the water that makes human culture possible on the Llano or in the Texas Hill Country comes not from the rivers but from the underground aquifers of the region. Consider the river whose canyon I finally sought out in order to go native to the Llano. The Brazos River is the third largest river in the second largest state in the country. It is presently 840 miles long, drains almost 43,000 square miles (to provide a sense of scale, our Brazos is a river twice as long as either the Seine or the Marne, and four times longer than the Thames). Once not so very long ago it was half again longer than today, a river the size of a Danube draining most of the eastern slopes of the Southern Rockies. It had an even earlier form, too, when it was 2,000 miles long and gushed muddy torrents of silt across the plains as the Southwestern analogue of the Mississippi.
No matter. In its original essence--at least down to 1929, when the Brazos River Authority set out to tame and domesticate it--the Brazos was the force of an ecosystem that in technologically simpler times did tie together the human cultures within its watershed. It did so for the Prairie Caddoans in the 17th through 19th centuries, and the lower river did so for the Anglo settlers of Texas later. It was food- giving lifeline, highway, cultural corridor all in one, a connecting ribbon more effective than any artificially-drawn border decreed by a state. The Brazos was not only organizing the waters of a vast reach of Texas before we were recording time, it was doing the same with plant and animal ranges and evolution, and all the while altering the very shape of the landscape. This force-of-nature Brazos in July of 1899 sighed over its banks to the tune of nine million dollars in damage and 30-35 human deaths, and reprised that performance with a flood that in 1915 swept 177 hapless people to their deaths--and, in its amoral way, simultaneously enriched the Coastal Prairie near its mouth with the residue of a broad swipe, like liquid sandpaper, down through the viscera of the Horizontal Yellow.
The reason I am suspicious of watersheds alone as the organizing principle of Bioregionalism, though, is that I have some familiarity not just with this river’s history, but with its spatial and ecological dissimilarities. One part is the Brazos River I left, pretty much permanently, in 1978. This was a Brazos River of fog-shrouded cottonwood bluffs under a moisture-filled steel wool sky, a stream muddy and languid in its Southernness, the ambiance of Tennessee Williams about it. Down at the riverside the banks were rank brown mud and the air smelled like snakes. The bottomlands of this Brazos River were broad, flat floodplains bordered by low, undulating hills. In the 1970s these bottomlands were almost devoid of the tallgrass prairie and canebrakes that early exploring accounts describe. All was gone in favor of the cotton that tied Brazos localism to the global economic system. What natural areas were left were largely in the bordering highlands or along tributaries like the Navasota River. This is where the bluestem prairies and oak mottes were still found. This was where the deer and turkeys were, scores of whitetails sometimes in view at a glance through the shimmering humidity mirages of the Navasota Bottom. This was the Brazos River I crossed countless times and explored some and kayaked once during the mid-1970s.
The other Brazos I know is not a single river, but a complex of four intermittent creeks fashioning draws and canyons, perhaps the very “Arms of God” that Hispanic travelers who were perhaps from New Mexico perhaps intended when, perhaps, they gave the river its name. This is the Llano Estacado Brazos, and its god must be a very different one from that of the Tennessee Williams Brazos I knew in College Station. Few people pay much attention to this part of the Brazos River; I get the impression that Downstate Texans don’t know where the Brazos comes from. But in this headwaters country, the river exhibits a base reversal compared to the lower Brazos. Here the valleys preserve what is left of the native flora and fauna of the Llano Estacado, while the bordering uplands are given over almost entirely to row-crop agriculture. And in spite of the thread of aqueous connection, this High Plains community of life is radically different. Along those 700 miles of river the natural world changes dramatically, from Eastern woods to Western steppe.
The watersheds of the rivers, in our modern reality, are simply not the best way to imagine ourselves back into Horizontal Yellow nature, and the Llano Estacado is emblematic of that. Instead, our best chances for going native are our local ecological provinces, where the connections exist to what the philosophy of Bioregionalism really values: the community of nature in a place where the common citizenhood is evident.
As for history, as it has been taught and written in the Southwest, not only is the fate of the natural world unimportant, but even crucial cultural connections have been ignored. History doesn’t point out that modern inhabitants of the Llano Estacado ought to owe their allegiance to New Mexico as much as Texas, as some of us even on the Texas side now acknowledge (the Downstate Lone Star folks have always smirked just a little too much about the Llano Estacado, anyway). Physiography has something to say, as well. By naming the plateau El Llano Estacado, seems to me the early New Mexican travelers were using physiography as a basis of uniqueness in a way that makes sense.
Thus the Llano Estacado, a country that phsyiography and ecology and climate--all the elements
that work in nature to create community--as well as the history that connects us both westward and
eastward, offer sufficient cause for Bioregional identity. Acknowledging that, how then to join up?
* * *
Evolution, or perhaps in deference to Richard Dawkins’s insights, the genes that fashioned me to carry forward their time-capsule messages, gave me a serviceable body. It does very well all the physical things a male humanoid has been shaped by life in nature to do. Nature, distilled through ancestors carrying my genes, has made me into a form that is light, fairly strong, coordinated, quick if not fast as other animals go, but with great endurance. At my physical peak my primate body could run 100 yards in little more than 10 seconds--fast enough to run down a wounded or injured deer. (I know. At 17 I ran one down.) Although my throwing skills were refined by sports, it was a natural primate inheritance that made possible slinging a football 60 yards, or hurling a rock-sized baseball 90 mph.
This body that genes made of me interpenetrates the corporeal world, and grasps even the abstractions culture teaches me, through the same senses that inform that running and throwing. The unmystical truth is that my senses bound what I can know; they define the real edge of human apprehension. My primate taste buds, honed for recognizing toxins in ripened fruits, carry off marvelously the subtle distinctions of an evening at Cafe Escalera in Santa Fe, where Kate Dowdy and I decadently go through nine courses with a different wine for each on a spring night in 1994. I inhale, in quick burns of neuron sensation that go straight into long-term memory, the split-cucumber smell of a rattlesnake, or like nasal pepper, the expanding oils of a sagebrush frond as I crush it under my nose. The calls of different birds, whose mere voices can summon their images into my head instantaneously, connect me to aural signals that pour in unceasingly. That sense of touch that enabled me to spiral a football is my vehicle to the rasp of Llano sandstone, to the silk of my lover’s thigh, to the contours of alivenes, delicate but resistant, in the flowertop of an Indian paintbrush that I reach down to squeeze of a May morning.
And there is vision, maligned these days as the sense of subject/object (as in “objectification”), the sense that can outrun all the others and thus (so it is said) separate us from nature. Maybe; I have a hard time buying it. Human vision’s apprehension of the world’s colors, forms, perspective of distance, its attraction to symmetry and hence beauty--not to mention its response to the holiest of holies, light-- combine with vision’s reach into the world to make it the exalted sense. Its power to evoke, recognized by anyone who has taken a good photograph, exceeds that of any other sense.
One way of saying what I am coming to here is that because the neuron pathways linking the
sensory receptors to the brain have a tendency to become “engraved” with habitual use, the visions, tastes,
smells, sounds, the very feel of life that enable us to interpenetrate with the world, are what make possible
going native to place. And because, as Scott Russell Sanders has written in Staying Put, “Earth is sexy,
just as sex is earthy,” this immersion is best felt not just as a neighborliness but as an eroticism, not just
sensuous but sensual, too. For those of us living the Llano Estacado Bioregion, an erotic connection to
place embodies something like passion for the particular, respect for the familiar, and an unconditional
love of the world as nature made it. As with any lover, the key to real intertwining is shared experience.
* * *
When Bioregionalist philosophers speak about how to go native to place, they often couch their points in questions--as in, “these are the kinds of things a native takes pains to know.” These kinds of questions, for example: Where did the water you drank today come from? How many days is it until the moon is full? What are the natural boundaries of your region? Can you name five native edible plants that grow locally? Can you explain the subsistence techniques of at least three of the cultures once native here? What were their populations? What are the different characteristics of the storms that approach from different directions? What are the most common native trees? What are the naturalized exotic trees? What are the common resident, nesting birds? What primary geological events or processes created the landforms? What species have become extinct here, and what happened to them? What are the major native plant communities here? What spring wildflower is consistently the first to bloom? What geological epochs are exposed in the rocks? Were the stars out last night? When is Summer Solstice? What does Winter Solstice mean? What are the plans for massive developments here? Have there been any massive ecological breakdowns in the area in the past century? What caused them? What is the largest wilderness in the region?
About half these were adapted from Bill Devall and George Session’s 1988 book, Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. I made up the rest to fit local conditions. My gut intuition from living in this part of the world for almost two decades is that put such questions, the huge bulk of modern residents of the Llano Estacado would likely perform pathetically.
Going native to North America is a process that for various reasons has frightened Euroamericans for 500 years. On the Llano Estacado we have telescoped into a century’s time the entire New World experience, and a part of that has been fear of being possessed--possessed by the Indians, possessed by the wilderness, possessed by the animal instincts within ourselves. It is a fear that still resonates and is used here: in a regional TV ad in the early 1990s a local minister exhorted Llano citizens not to stray from their Protestant roots lest they become “just like the animals.” The unintended implication was that religion remains a force for extracting us from the natural community rather than healing our alienation from the continent.
If local religion isn’t likely to help us, perhaps local stories can. For my part, I long to hear stories of people going native here, stories of Llano Estacado seduction. I want to hear more stories like the one about how Georgia O’Keeffe thrilled to the great forces of Llano thunderstorms and duststorms; about Dust Bowl artist Alexandre Hogue loving the Rocky Mountain junipers as if they were his own kin, which of course they were; of Frank Reaugh painting every grand scene along the Caprock at the turn of the century. I’d love to hear tales of people who have rappelled all the 150 feet sheer cliffs in the Caprock Canyonlands, or of folks who turn away with disgust from their manicured lawns and exotic trees and rejoin the Llano community by planting only native species. It would be inspiring to hear of locals who have sought out all four kinds of native junipers as purifying incense, or about someone who has written verse to all the waterfalls along the Caprock, or played a flute or guitar from atop all the mesas, done sweats and vision quests at Solstices, or done something as simple as chasing a lover through crunching buffalograss under silvery Llano moonlight.
It’s glaringly certain that our historical stories need recasting. Rather than tales of “progress,” of Charles Goodnight’s heroic JA Ranch (which involved expelling all the bears and bison from Palo Duro), or Hickman Price or Hugh Bennett teaching farmers the virtues of agribusiness, Llano Estacado Bioregionalism would be better served if history emphasized more stories like that of 18-year-old Doak Good, who in 1879 was discovered living the wilderness life in a pole and buffalo-hide house in Yellow House Canyon and who was so compelled, he said, because it was such “a wild, dreary place.” I may be romanticizing him, but Doak Good is the closest thing our canyons have to Everett Ruess, the famous vagabond for beauty, who from 17 to 21 roamed the Utah canyons in a state of intense rapture.
Bioregionalism isn’t about substituting one kind of political layer for another, but politically it does imply some significant changes. Given the agricultural nature of the modern Llano economy, the only practical way for the Llano Estacado bioregion to develop as an environmentally-grounded society is to create public wilderness preserves where more of us can experience and be motivated by Bioregionalist impulses and sense of community in what is, after all, a spectacular country of stupendous natural forces. It was a tragedy of regional history that the National Park Service in the 1930s failed to get either its proposed million-acre national park or a 135,000-acre national monument around Palo Duro Canyon. In a study done in 1991, Dennis Williams demonstrated that a wild Palo Duro park that would restore many of the extirpated large animals native to the Llano is still a feasible, if difficult, project. We ought not to rest until it is done.
Meanwhile, there are beginnings. Since the early 1990s Father Daryl Birkenfeld of Hereford and his associates at the Catholic Diocese in Amarillo have held valuable annual conferences on Bioregional themes. There is more appreciation of recent regional writing and art, like the poetry of Walt McDonald, stressing the themes of Llano Estacado nature and place. Local artists even seem to be abandoning their tiresome infatuation with windmills and cows; canyons, storms, junipers are gaining fans. Music is probably the best venue for a Llano Estacado sense of place, but unfortunately, although there is much Austin-Lubbock music about the High Plains, the music associated with the Llano Estacado is about as in touch with the natural world as the Daughters of the Texas Revolution are with multiculturalism. But I do take it as a positive that these days, in the canyon where I live, the ubiquitous penchant for adorning nature with beercans and trash is frequently countered with handmade signs invoking Christian stewardship--or with this scrawled message, which captured my own sentiments exactly: “Hey chingaperos, why do you throw your trash in this place?”
There have been some recent public lands nature preserves, too, and (according to Texas Parks and Wildlife officials) currently more favorable public sentiments for park acquisitions here than probably anywhere else in the Southwest. Since the early 1980s the Llano Estacado has seen the establishment of stunning 15,000-acre Caprock Canyons State Park, Nature Conservancy interest in Indian Creek Canyon, and creation of the Caprock Trail, a 64-mile rails-to-trails conversion that many hope will be the first link in a 300-mile trail network through the Caprock Escarpment. These have produced subtle but discernible changes in awareness in Llano Estacado society.
Of course this is not enough in a bioregion where nature has been nationally sacrificed.
Bioregionalism has far to go here, and its agenda needs to be more radical. The charismatic native
species, bison and wolves and mustangs, need to be returned. More big parks, like the one Texas Parks
and Wildlife is interested in establishing from the high Llano down to the Canadian River along the New
Mexico line, beg regional activism. The playa lakes critical to migrating birds need protecting. And the
Conservation Reserve Program should be a permanent policy to continue the restoration of the grasslands.
To be loose with an Aldo Leopold sentiment, of what avail are Bioregional sentiments unless we restore
* * *
June 21. Summer Solstice, one of those rare ones when the maximum life-generating force of this longest day in the Northern Hemisphere has converged with the power of a full moon, which this raucous crowd of 50 or 60 people expects to witness drifting up over Turkey Mesa in Yellow House Canyon within minutes. We’ve just finished a free-form sunset dance around my rock medicine wheel high on the rimrock, properly setting the sun back on its northward course across the horizon. We’ve read a bit of poetry. And we’ve conducted an informal Llano Estacado Council of Beings ceremony, with various folks speaking on behalf of various regional constituencies--mesas, rivers, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, coyotes, the unceasing wind--that get neither representation nor respect on the Llano. Who knows whether the snakes and spiders approved, but midway through David’s evocation of “Coyote del Llano,” the local coyotes chorused in with what was widely taken as hell yeah and amen.
Now that the ceremonies are over, it’s time to break out the tequila and the bioregional wines. Marvel at the canyon silhouettes washed in lunar twilight and at Catherine’s fandango-red dress. Restrain Lloyd’s bonfire proclivities and listen to Blake sing about O’Keeffe in Palo Duro and Eddie Beethoven perform his future Llano Estacado classic, Blame It On the Wind. It’s time to troop into the sweatlodge, maybe seek a direct connection (and shock the first-timers) with a little innocent naked campfire dancing. No Solstice pilgrims want to miss that.
Who knows whether such celebratory antics, which have been going on for more than a decade of Solstices on my Yellow House Canyon ranch, have any impact on Llano Estacado Bioregional sensibilities. But to convey some idea of regional environmental savvy, story was when I moved here that when the EPA first approached the owners of the feedlot south of Lubbock about new air standards, the local boys offered to buy at their own expense a couple of cases of ReNewzIt Air Freshener and place them strategically around on the fenceposts. (Today when the wind is right the good citizens of Lubbock wonder aloud how long it’s been since the air fresheners were changed out.) Things have evolved since those sophisticated days, and some of those who have evolved them are Solstice campfire dancers in Yellow House.
I am certain none of us had heard either of Bioregionalism or of its arguments about the “reinhabitation” of the continent at the time I bought my 12 acres and moved out to Yellow House Canyon in 1983. It was an instinctive move, propelled by the nature alienation inherent to modern life atop the Llano, and it made me seek out one of the places along the Llano Estacado’s perimeter where the natural world was still alive. Over a decade, and with the help of friends, a house evoking the canyon’s Southwestern ecology and historical connections took shape here. Many of us explored and came to know the surrounding country, read the histories and stories, learned the native plants, their response to fire, to moisture, to our presence.
Almost two decades after coming here, I think I am closer to grasping how a Llano Estacado whose nature had been ripped from the ground or locked behind ranch gates nonetheless could affect me. In some odd way that may be prescriptive for such an open world, it was simply this: the fundamental presence of sheer space and simple forms in combination with a sky whose power not even Modernism has been able to eradicate.
Going native, I have come to understand the sky’s role as seen from a familiar place. From Solstice to Solstice and back again, from the spot of Llano Estacado I occupy the whole universe appears to orbit in an endlessly repeating cycle over Turkey Mesa, a powerful and elegant landform out my doorway. Over time, this mesa’s three angled lines have to me become both anchor and entry point into place. Beyond it occur the grand sunrises of winter, commencing with Winter Solstice when the sun rises along the mesa’s south slope and explodes high cirrus ice clouds, or suspended dust, into wildly operatic color bands and leopard spots that never duplicate. I have watched hundreds of these sunrises. No two are alike.
Later in the winter sky there is Orion, materializing over the mesa once the sky is dark enough for stars, trailed an hour later by Sirius’s prismatic throbbing low in the inky nights. In early spring there are migrating hawks performing tandem pirouettes over the mesa’s point and hanging motionless in the updrafts from a March Norther. At Summer Solstice I watch Jupiter’s evening ascendance over Turkey’s angled crest, with Venus its orbicular twin on the antipode side of the sky. There are the stunning, pre- dawn prairie auroras off Turkey’s north shoulder in high summer. Then in the nutmeg earth hues of October comes the primeval fluting of the sandhill cranes, old as the rocks, that seems to emanate directly from the mesa’s mass on those first frosty mornings. And always the moon. Bulging red at the horizon. A chilled sliver always somewhere visible in the domed Llano skies. Or golden and enormous, like a science fiction world, rising over the mesa’s rimrock.
When the planets begin to appear in the dawn sky above Turkey Mesa, and its bulk throws a long shadow over my house at that innocent moment when daybreak lances through the cactus and canyon round about, I need no calendar to know how long until the process pauses, and turns ‘round to come again, again, again.
Not history, nor names. Not knowledge alone, but sensuous immersion in the familiar. The sky and the mesa have taught me how to re-imagine the Llano Estacado.
Paul Shepard, “A Post-Historic Primitivism,” in The Wilderness Condition: Essays on Environment and Civilization, ed. Max Oelschlaeger (Washington: Island Press, 1992): 40.
Stephanie Lahar, “Roots: Rejoining Natural and Social History,” in Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature, ed. Greta Gaard (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993): 99.