Texas: a sense of place, a sense of time, a sense of history

At Double Helix Ranch

David Hillis, on right, with writers.

Before the cold front blew in last night, three ravens flew over the house, identified before I saw them by their hoarse voices. If ever there is an omen, three calling ravens should qualify. I might view them as warning of a weather change, or that something is going to happen, good or bad, depending on how I feel about the large birds. But couldn’t I just as well attribute meaning to the lone turkey vulture that today soared and twisted low and close? After all, this didn’t happen yesterday. But then today I did not hear the bobwhite quail. I did not hear the turkeys. Eight of the longhorns had moved onto the path out of the ravine. They included the short-horned red one and the dappled one that sees the future.

But I am not a superstitious person, so I attribute a different kind of meaning to these singular events. What they mean to me is that I do not yet have a sense of this place. I see it, I love it, but I do not understand it. When I told David Hillis about the ravens, he said yes, they nest on his ranch. No doubt he has seen them many times. I did not know ravens nested here, but I see that little wedge into central Texas for their nesting distribution in the bird book. David Hillis would not need the book. He knows who nests here and when, who is common, and who is rare. He has pressed onto herbarium sheets the plant life of this ranch. Having a sense of a place takes time. For some, decades would not be enough.

Each day you spend at a place increases your connection to it, but only if you pay attention. You might learn the birds, but ignore the dragonflies or butterflies. You might remember South America as I do, as a quilt of social wasp distributions, most stunning in Brazil with Agalaia vicina and its refrigerator-sized nests, or most diverse in Ecuador where Jatun Sacha positively glowed with wasps for me. The point is that you cannot gain a sense of a place without knowing the organisms that inhabit it. This takes time, for they do not reveal themselves all at once.

Human history is also part of a place, so my patient husband stopped for me at every historical marker on the 23 miles between here and Llano on 71. There were four. The first commemorates a battle at Packsaddle Mountain, DSC02896which we could see on the horizon 2.5 miles east. The conflict was on 4 August 1873 when seven men, including three with the last name of Moss, chased off a group of people that actually owned the land, apparently three times the number of the invaders. It was the last such conflict. I had a private moment of silence for the human natives of this land. The second marker is for the lack of silver, from an exploration by Bernardo de Miranda in 1756. At the confluence of the Llano and Colorado rivers, they got 10 ounces of silver from 100 pounds of ore, too little even for them. The third and forth metal markers note the community of Valley Spring, settled in 1853, and the Pontotoc and San Fernando Academy, used as a school from 1883 to 1927, now a ruin. Who is paying for all these signs in a state that won’t even treat its state parks right? But they do add to the history side of a sense of place.DSC02908

I can get a head start on a sense of this place, for I can walk the 600 acres without fear, ignoring the trails so long as I avoid the nopal and walk respectfully around the watchful longhorns. I can see the stars at night, big and bright, deep in this Texas heart. I can learn well, for I have a wall of books on Texas natural history right behind me. If I focused, in my remaining time I might get through a tenth of a field guide and a narrative or two. For now, I’ll go back to Larry McMurtry‘s Comanche Moon.

written from the Double Helix Ranch Writer’s Retreat.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Environment, Natural areas, Texas Hill Country. Bookmark the permalink.

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