Planet Earth’s land surfaces are laid out in various sorts of natural, familiar, and more or less recognizable units—reaches of forest or grass or desert, islands, plateaus, mountain ranges and chains, river drainage basins, or whatever. But except for some islands and peninsulas, such natural units rarely jibe with the political divisions that slapdash history has sketched on the same land surfaces.
Texas, neither an island nor a peninsula, is not an exception to this. Its boundaries, like most boundaries, are the fruit of old ambition and greed and frustration and error and accident, and of hanky-panky in high places. There is nothing naturally unitary about it. Being wide in all directions, it has vast variations in soil and climate and topography and geology and vegetation, and most of its larger natural regions based on these variables blend outward with similar regions beyond its borders. Wet and wooded East Texas has more real kinship with Mississippi and Alabama than with some parts of its own state not a hundred miles west. The harsh Trans-Pecos region, mainly dry and rough and thinly peopled, if in spots magnificent, wedges out from the main bulk of the state between equally rough dry areas in the Mexicos, old and New, to either of which it might more appropriately belong. Nor does much more pure Texan-ness mark the state’s other main divisions, as commonly defined—the fiat High Plains of the western part of the Panhandle and the red-soiled Rolling Plains to their east; the dissected-iimestone Edwards Plateau to the south of both; the Rio Grande Plain of the state’s southern prong below San Antonio; the coastal prairies and marshes and island-shielded estuaries, or “bays”; and the belt of inland prairies stretching north up the state’s midsection, of which the richest part is the so-called “blacklands.”
The variations that matter most to me are those that have to do with natural vegetation and beasts and birds and the patterns of human land use, and the interplay among them. They depend in part on topography and soil changes, as well as on cold and heat and altitude; it is hard to find much likeness between a place like Dalhart, in the 4000-foot cattle country at the northwestern tip of the Panhandle, whose winter temperatures often dip below zero, and the lower Rio Grande’s subtropical citrus and vegetable region, nearly at sea level, where the rather rare prospect of frost can sprout panic. But rainfall is perhaps the main influence, and annual rainfall dwindles at a more or less steady rate of about one inch per fifteen miles from east to west across the breadth of the state. This is why the pine hardwood forests of East Texas, with fifty-five inches or so in their wettest zone, have practically nothing in common, naturally, economically, scenically, or even socially, with that sunbaked territory across the Pecos at whose tip, around El Paso, a magnificent total of seven-plus inches of moisture gets to the ground each year. It is the reason for the existence of the forests, and for the desert’s existence too, and for most of the differences in between.
What used to lie in between, in the almost virginal Texas of 150 years ago, was nearly solid grassland. Some of it was in the form of oak or mesquite savanna, and there were plenty of trees also, of course, along creeks and rivers, and in the two queer, narrow tongues of sandy post oak woodland that poke down into the central prairies from the Red River and are known as the East and West Cross Timbers. So did thickets of juniper (called cedar here) and other woody stuff occur on patches of rough land scattered about. But grass held fundamental sway on at least three fourths of the nearly 170 million acres now labeled Texas, dictating not only the forms of animal life that would thrive most conspicuously—bison and antelope and mustangs and jackrabbits and prairie dogs, and their predators—but also the shape that nontechnological human existence might take. The Comanche and the Texas cowboy were nearly as much creations of the grass as were the buffalo.
In the more humid section of the grasslands, where soil was deep enough - on the central prairies and the coast and certain parts of the Edwards Plateau and Rio Grande Plain - good rainfall fostered “tallgrass country,” where thick high stands of herbiage were dominated by switch grass and big bluestem and Indian grass that sometimes dwarfed the beasts grazing there. Westward, as the land grew drier, these gave way to shorter species in solid sod typical of the Great Plains, and still farther west, bunehgrasses separated by bare ground took over. And finally there was the low, sparse, thorny scrub of the frans-Pecos desert. All because the rain in Texas falls not mainly on the plain but with increasing stinginess from east to west.
Squandering the topsoil
Relatively brief history has stomped around in Texas with abrasive boots on. Aside from a few parts of the arid western wedge that have been too remote for men to reach in numbers or too useless for them to want to, its regions are bereft of wilderness and pretty thoroughly battered by human use a scant century and a half after Anglo-Americans began to move forcefully into well-watered eastern and coastal sections. When, in company with a good many immigrant Germans, they hit the wide grass country, they came soon into full clash with its longtime rulers, the bloody and intractable horseback Comanches, who until then had not had much trouble barring other sorts of red or white men from their empire. But by the time the uproar and bloodshed attendant upon the conflict between them and the thrusting tejanos ended in the 1870s, the Comanches, along with their buffalo and their horses, had been practically exterminated.
Their white adversaries and heirs, progenitors of us modern Texans, assaulted the land’s fertility as their kind and kin had been doing on American frontiers for two centuries and more. Most were Anglo-Celtic southern yeomen. Tough and alert and unencumbered with ambivalent attitudes, they brought with them from the timbered East a pattern of mixed subsistence farming and stock raising, and a tradition of leapfrogging to fresh land generation by generation, or more often than that if the land they happened to get was marginal and wore out fast. In East Texas forests, this tradition required no alteration and was combined, as usual, with heavy exploitation of the timber. Serious logging began there in the 1850s and peaked later in the century after railroads were built for shipping the sawmills’ yield. Practically all the big virgin pine was gone from accessible places within a few decades, and much of the hardwood, too.
Confronted with unfamiliar seas of grass beyond the woods, these yeomen early absorbed from Mexican ranchers the techniques and skills of handling unfenced, half-wild longhorn cattle there. Many stopped farming and turned into open-range graziers, often owning no land, merely their herds and horses, and a mobile “cattlemen’s frontier" developed ahead of the slower, more populous agricultural frontier as they sought new grass—though before barbed wire, the open range existed nearly everywhere in Texas, outside of people’s fenced fields and dooryards, and was stocked heavily.
Set hog-wild by the increased value of cattle that came with access to northern markets after the Civil War, via the great droving trails, this grazing frontier spilled out across the state’s western grasslands with the vanishing of the Indian barrier and the destruction of the buffalo in the 1870s, as indeed it quickly spilled up the Great Plains to Canada, pouring as many animals onto the land as the land would sustain, and then more still. Sheep in unbelievable numbers were brought in too, especially on the Edwards Plateau.
Behind the stockmen, in Texas as elsewhere, farmers kept moving up, even into rainfall belts where farming Indian tribes had known better than to venture, with or without Comanches around. Railroads promoted this in part, possessing granted land to sell and wanting shipping clients: “Rain will follow the plow,” it was said, and widely, wishfully believed. . . . Posthellum America being less concerned with subsistence than with cash, a money crop was needed, and for most of farming Texas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cotton was it, though farther west things like bonanza wheat farming came into the picture too. Cotton was planted on tens of thousands of primarily small farms, from the Louisiana line to the Panhandle High Plains, often in combination with grains like corn in the east and the sorghums (generally lumped now as “milo maize,” or just “milo”) in the more arid west.
It was a tough assault, and regions that were dry or steep or both suffered most under it. Much Texas rain comes in gushing storms with winds droughts between them, and bared, sloping soils washed or blew away with ease. This happened not only on cropland but also on the grazed-down ranches, where often the advent of wire fences and private management, in the 1880s and after, merely intensified the abuses of the open-range era. It all took time, but in vulnerable places irreplaceable topsoil gradually vanished a sort of cumulative disaster, of which the most flamboyant symptom was the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Other symptoms abounded. Streams had lost the steady flow that matted grasses and spongy soil had rationed out, and many were reduced to trickles or dry gravel, except when storms set them to flooding. Low desert vegetation took over huge parts of the western Edwards Plateau, where little but bare limestone remained, and on ranges in many other parts of the once superb grasslands, brush and scrub assumed dominance to humor nature’s dislike of naked ground. In the Rio Grande Plain south of San Antonio, this invasion took the form of extensive thickets of mixed thorny plants which had begun to spread quite early, for Spanish ranching started here in the mid-1700s and was the source of all that lore concerning lariats and branding irons and so on that spread up the Great Plains to Canada. One of the thorny plants from this “brush country,”as it was called - the lacy, pretty, stubborn low tree named mesquite - moved northward as seeds in the bowels of trail cattle, taking hold wherever it found appropriate soil and climate, but finding perhaps its most congenial home in the red-bed Rolling Plains, where it thirstily occupied millions of tired acres, letting little else grow.
In sandy areas shin oak and scrub post oak and brambles and such things proliferated in the same way, and in rough limestone country, like the eastern Edwards Plateau and the hillier parts of the Grand Prairie north of there, cedar and live oak and Spanish oak supplanted the vanished grass. Wildlife changed with the habitat. There were no more buffalo or mustangs or antelope, of course, except as captives or tolerated remnants, nor had the great gray wolves and other big predators with a taste for livestock survived. But deer moved out of the restricted forests and river bottoms into the brush and multiplied to numbers unknown in virgin Texas, especially in the Edwards section, but elsewhere too, as did many smaller beasts. And the hundreds of Texas bird species swelled or shrank in numbers, in ways that ornithologists are still trying to figure out.
In terms of tamelife, livestock, one notable addition took place—Angora goats, happy browsers of scrub brush and especially of live oak, which stays green through winter. Four million strong in the state a few years since, they have been decimated lately by a collapsed mohair market that caused huge numbers to be shipped to Mexico for meat, but together with weedand scrub-eating sheep, they carried through hard times many a limestonecountry ranching family, nearly out of the cattle business from having destroyed the range.
In sections devoted primarily to small farming, no equivalent savior showed up, unless an oil field turned out to include one’s farm, as sometimes happened. The 1930s were the low point, the time of realization, with depression and drought and relatively new problems like boll weevils to magnify the effects of the land’s own compounded exhaustion. foreclosure and debt and the frustrations of tenantry drove hordes of the old yeomen’s descendants to Houston and Dallas and Austin and other cities, where World War II spawned jobs and led them into subsequent boom times, and left them with little inclination to go back to the country, unless as affluent hobby farmers. Wide areas of marginal farmlands lay nearly abandoned; brush crept into fields where yearly stands of cotton had once dominated whole clans’ quiet, hard lives; and pale owls screamed in moonlight in the yards of empty, unpainted houses made of boards hauled west from the gutted Hast Texas forests.
Thus farmers and cowmen and sheepmen and lumbermen and others subjugated Texas and wore it down in fairly short order, in the process creating wealth for some, and legends, and ways of life. For people who grew up within sight of that era, it was, despite everything—in its earlier stages, anyhow - an exuberant, romantic time, and it shaped some fine tough people whose influence lingers down. But like most latter-day American romance, based on profit beyond all else, it was cob-rough on the land, and the traces of the advancing Anglo-Celtic storm are starkly apparent today to anyone with a notion of what Texas used to be. Nor is there any understanding of the land without such awareness.
Since World War II, Texas patterns of land use have changed markedly in some ways. They had to. In the land’s own terms, some of the changes have been good and others not, but the factor of the land’s health does seem to have been sidling into the equation more often than it did forty years ago, when only a sprinkling of farmers, often German or Czech by descent, and a handful of baronial ranching families, usually fortified with a bit of oil money, showed much consciousness of it. If short-term cash considerations still dominate most thinking about the land, sour experience has brought at least some realization of late that in the long run what is good for the land is what is good for people.
One evidence of such realization is the way rangeland has increasingly been pampered in the state through the eradication of invading brush, by bulldozing or root-plowing or poisoning, and the re-establishment of native or adapted exotic species of grass. This doesn’t bring back the old primeval rich shape of things, for there is no way to replace billions of tons of squandered topsoil on rough land, but it sets up a usable semblance of what was—usable, that is, with care, which it most often gets from those who have had to pay for expensive restoration. Whether tougher times will lead to a disastrous repetition of the old cycle of overstocking and erosion and scrub invasion remains for the future to tell us. But for now, even if the resown grasses are skimpier than those you read about in Comanche-fighters’ memoirs, they do sustain good cattle and hold what soil remains, and are very pleasant to look at while driving by.
Maybe the biggest change has been the virtual disappearance of crop farming in huge areas of the eastern half of the state with rainfall ranging upwards of thirty inches, which used to be considered the most dependable section for dirt farming. Badly damaged in the long cotton era, most old sloping field land—and much that is flat also—is planted now in permanent improved-grass pasture for beef cattle, and carefully tended. You can drive all day in parts of rolling upper East Texas, where not long ago patches of cotton and com were everywhere among the pines and sweetgums and oaks, and you will see very little but trees and thick grass with cows—now predominantly the multicolored crossbreeds whose progeny bring joy to feedlot owners through their hybrid talent for getting fat fast. Old frame houses stand empty and aslant, T or L or shotgun in shape, their lands often consolidated into larger tracts.
This shift to meadow grazing extends to the steeper parts of the old “tallgrass country” of the midriff prairies and the Cross Timbers and the eastern Edwards Plateau. Field land in all the more declivitous humid areas now tends to be in coastal Bermuda or kleingrass or love grass or whatever, with fat cattle gobbling it up, and if you do see a field that has been worked, it is most likely in winter wheat or oats for high-protein cold-season grazing. The pattern is a pleasant one and easy on the land, but it depends on heavy doses of chemical fertilizer (especially for leached, lighter soils like those of the forest zone), the price of which has soared lately along with that of supplementary feed, and on sustained high cattle prices, which have abysmally fallen. These grubby economic facts reflect an energy shortage and also the world food situation, which is calling into question our American taste for marbled beef, given the enormous quantity of good land required to rear cattle in this fashion and to raise the grain for fattening them. If such considerations prevail, the end result may well turn out to be a wide reversion of arable soils to humanlv-edible crops, from eastern Texas to Pennsylvania.
If so, it is hard to believe that the old cotton and corn fields will again be subjected to quite such unwitting abuse as played hell with them before. Knowledge is available now to forestall erosion and, on field land, even to rebuild some topsoil in time. And a glance at such rolling land in the state as is still being dry-farmed—for milo and cotton and small grain in the best of the central blackland prairies and in parts of the red Rolling Plains; for peanuts in the Cross Timbers; for diverse other crops in limited areas elsewhere—shows an awareness of erosion dangers that only the desperation of the 1930s could have brought, with terraces or contour furrows or cover crops holding the soil in the fields of all but some scattered, feckless, latter-day frontiersmen. A few farmers even worry about maintaining or re-establishing topsoil, disking in cotton-gin trash and feedlot manure and stands of green stuff grown for the purpose, but it is a good deal of continuing trouble, and most don’t bother; bought chemical fertilizers are a simpler if less lasting way of keeping up fertility.
Though pretty enough to look at, nearly all this farming is largely chemical now, like most other American farming, and the effects of it radiate outward. The blacklands, for instance, used to support a sizable honey industry, for cotton is a good longblooming nectar plant. But the new virulent bug poisons available since World War II have been slathered probably more enthusiastically on cotton than on any other major crop, and in most places bees are a thing of the past. Here and there you still see a row of white hives tucked along the south slope of a hill, in witness that someone cares enough about the wholeness of things to be careful with insecticides. There aren’t many such, though, and some communities regard these farmers as kooks or worse, breeders of bollworms and other horrors to devil the neighborhood. Nor, with herbicides on hand, do many tillers of the soil tolerate the pleasant tangles of briers and grass and brush along fencerows that used to shelter a multitude of small wild things.
The quest for water
Most chemical of all, and most productive and profitable at the moment, is the irrigated agriculture that occupies parts of the state where water can be obtained for it. Traditionally such water was stream water, diverted onto level soil where ditching and bordering were feasible, and the main original irrigation areas in Texas were in places where watercourses and land conformation permitted such use—near the mouths of rivers on the coastal prairies where rice was cultivated; in patches of West Texas where rivers or big springs allowed farmers to thumb their noses at the dry climate; but most impressively in “the Valley" near the mouth of the Rio Grande, where the use of spreading alluvial flats, common since Spanish times, burgeoned early in this century with their development for growing winter fruit and vegetables as well as cotton and other crops.
Of late, however, technology in the form of bigbore drilled wells and dependable heavy pumps has allowed farmers to exploit Texas’ magnificent system of aquifers, the subterranean water-bearing formations that underlie much of the state and are, incredibly, unregulated by state law, though surface water rights are rigidly governed. This process began a good while back in places where groundwater lay at shallow depths, but really got going strong after the war. Under its stimulus, rice farming has spread over most level and suitable parts of the upper coast, and more and more scattered aggregations of farmers elsewhere have been able to ignore drought, sometimes irrigating even rolling land with elaborate sprinkler systems. The center of pump irrigation, though, is the Panhandle High Plains, a tableland of deep good soils where some five or six million acres have customarily been watered in recent years out of the big Ogallala aquifer. With a long, stable growing season and sharp winters to minimize insects, most standard crops thrive there—cotton, wheat, sugar beets, corn, milo, vegetables—and the certainty of having water for them at the right time has made it possible, with chemicals, to grow them in a sort of forced profusion. Farmers’ homes tend to be expensive modern structures surrounded by new cars and machinery, and across the unending flatness of rich fields loom the elevators and gins of town after prosperous town, with occasional big feedlots to help utilize all that grain.
The Ogallala contains what some people have called “fossil water.” It is not recharged, as many aquifers are, through underground flow from higher and more humid sections elsewhere, but holds water accumulated during hundreds or thousands of years from the tiny fraction of the tableland’s own meager rainfall that manages to filter downward amounting by the most generous estimates to maybe a half-inch each year. Irrigation being the most prodigal of all human uses of water, a state of “overdraft” exists in most Texas farm areas watered from aquifers, withdrawals exceeding recharge. But on the High Plains the disproportion is horrific, and the Ogallala has been sinking in recent decades like straw-sucked CocaCola in a glass: by the most recent figures I have seen, its level has declined an average of 2.8 feet a year since 1961, which was a long while after the process started. This means that wells are already failing in some areas, and that in others pumping costs are going up and up, and means most significantly that the end of the boom built on the Ogallala’s use is quite clearly in view. Authorities make varying prophecies, but most believe big trouble will start in the 1980s, and that ultimately, unless some form of rescue is forthcoming, the High Plains will revert to the pattern of ranches and dryland farms that ruled there until not very long ago.
A giant form of rescue was included in the 1968 Texas Water Plan, a grandiose state scheme which proposed to accomplish with heavy federal aid-a complete revamping of the state’s natural plumbing system through a system of reservoirs up and down all its good eastern rivers and a network of canals to shunt their water to drier areas, chiefly for irrigation. One of these canals would run down along the coast for the benefit of its dry lower reaches and the Valley, where expansion of farming has been limited by the finiteness of the Rio Grande’s flow. But the main Plan component was the envisioned abstraction annually of some twelve to thirteen million acre-feet of water from the Mississippi, which would be brought across Louisiana in an enormous canal and also distributed round about the Lone Star state, but mainly to the High Plains. The Plains being hundreds of miles from the Mississippi and 3000 feet or more above it, contemplated energy consumption and construction costs even in 1968 were staggering; a more recent federal estimate for building this segment of the Plan is $20.5 billion. Environmental effects would have been on a similar scale, as environmentalists pointed out with loud voices.
Even Texas voters, by and large unenvironmental and conditioned to progressive bigness, showed they could not stomach quite this much by defeating a proposed preliminary $3.5 billion bond issue, and the Plan was stymied. Its backers have never officially given up, but in view of the fact that the High Plains segment would not be able to deliver water to irrigators there for less than four or five times what they could afford to pay, it does not seem credible that insistence on that part of the Plan will long endure, even though noises are still being made in its support. The Texas High Plains, like other similarly vulnerable irrigated sections in the West, is a valuable and contributive part of the American agricultural system today, if we leave aside some increasingly cogent quibbles about its ratio of energy consumption to production. But it isn’t indispensable. Its productiveness is essentially a form of frontier exploitation of a limited resource, like nineteenth-century lumbering and mining and move-along farming and ranching, and the resource is dwindling, and there is no reason to believe that when production there becomes uneconomic, production elsewhere won’t take up the slack. Perhaps, as a National Academy of Sciences study has suggested, that “elsewhere" will be a revived American Southeast, with water posing no problem.
Where is the wilderness?
If here I have dwelt lingeringly on human use of the Texas land, it is because nearly all of Texas has been humanly used, and used quite hard. Except for logging in the east, most of the use has been agricultural and pastoral. Oil and gas fields are occasionally pollutive, but remarkably seldom considering their extent in the state. Of other minerals we have only a few in exploitable quantities, though with the energy crisis there does loom the threat of big-scale strip-mining of lignite beds that occupy perhaps a million acres in eastern and southern Texas. And we share of course with many sister states a basketful of grimly standard problems relating to the land, among them metropolitan spraddle, defilement of water and air, and a state government disposed in the main to view environmentalists as subversive. The Texas Department of Public Safety saw fit last year to put one anti-nuclear-power group under surveillance.
The general western pattern of federal ownership—and often preservation—of huge tracts does not obtain: Texas kept its public lands when it came into the Union and doled them out thereafter; nor were there many mountains or deserts that takers shied away from. Therefore, what we have left of real or nearly real wilderness is spotty and can be ticked off in a short space. The bulk of it in terms of acreage lies beyond the Pecos, and it remains wild because nobody ever found much tame use for it, though developers lately have been trying hard to sell vacation lots in rugged, pretty places there. Two exceptionally beautiful pieces of this desert-mountain landscape are officially protected now, in the wide Big Bend National Park and in a new and smaller federal park in the Guadalupe Mountains on the New Mexico line.
When I was growing up, the flat Texas coast was a sort of wilderness, despite ranching on its prairies and on the string of long, narrow sand islands that shield its estuarial bays from the open Gulf, and small shrimping or fish-and-bait towns here and there. Its main conglomerations of people, at Port Arthur and Galveston and Corpus Christi and Brownsville, were well apart from each other with long stretches of country between. Bay fish and oysters and crabs and shrimp abounded, along with the young of many oceanic species that had their nurseries there. Farming being minimal, except where the land rose inland and was drier, gatherings of all sorts of waterfowl on prairies and marshes and inlets were one of the nation’s major ornithological spectacles, a remnant reminder of the continent’s primeval fecundity. I suppose we took it for granted, just as earlier men had taken the whole continent’s richness for granted, and while we did, much of it went away.
An analysis of the coast’s troubles would be too lengthy to include here, and many of its elements would be familiar to people who have cared about other coasts: industrial and municipal and agricultural pollution of the bays and of the streams that feed into them (Buffalo Bayou, which serves as a ship channel and industrial corridor from Houston down to Galveston Bay, has been called perhaps the most polluted body of water in the world); augmented bay salinities as damming and diversion of rivers’ water goes on inexorably; increased farming on the prairies; thronging vacation communities: profitable shell dredging that destroys habitat in the bays and roils their water; bulkheading and filling of marshy edges-and so on and on. . . . Much life and richness remain, some being protected in seashore parks and major wildlife refuges, but it is not possible to keep from wondering how much of what is left is destined for a fate similar to that of the pleasant and ungainly and once ubiquitous brown pelican, nearly extinct now on that coast, apparently through an accumulation of chlorinated-hydrocarbon pesticide residues in its tissues.
A surviving bit of wilderness in the “flatwoods” of extreme southeastern Texas, what remains of the Big Thicket that once covered more than three million acres, has been often in the news in recent years as its partisans, who want to keep it as what one of them has called “the last stand of the traditional deep southern forest,” have done battle with timber interests in print and in person and in the halls of Congress. Expert at delaying tactics, exploiters have intensified their logging activities during the long controversy, and have engaged in such public relations as poisoning a 1000-year-old showpiece magnolia, apparently through pure spite toward people who admired it. But a bill has finally gone through authorizing “a national preserve” of 84,500 acres which, though it is much smaller than the Thicket’s champions had felt was needed, will keep some portions of this distinctive, moist, mixed tangle, rich in animal and plant life of many sorts, from being logged off and soilshredded and “reforested” with useful quick-growing pines in precise rows, a common practice in the region now.
After the sinking spell of the rural 1930s, war and boom and oil and industry and urbanization have kept most Texans from having to face very closely the depletion of their land resources. In this as in many other things, the state reflects the nation. But I suspect that in the long or maybe even the short run, the land will have its say again. For oil and boom, as we are finding out, can’t last forever in a New World that is no longer new. Reality lurks somewhere ahead, ready to confront us again, and despite astronautics and all that, reality is still primarily the earth that shaped us and feeds us and sustains us and will accept our bodies when we die. That the Texas land and the American land should have been sorely abused by history was inevitable: men throughout the world have always abused new land when they could manage to do so, and have had a hell of a good time at it; and we on this continent had better tools for the job than most other civilizations have had. That we will continue to abuse it in the future may be somewhat less inevitable. One hopes so, for the destination of such a course seems all too clear.
The main hope, I suppose, is that we will at last grow up.