Freezing in a Storm?

On Tuesday night I attended a talk by the author and rancher John Erickson. He’s best known by most people as the creator of Hank the Cowdog, a growing and very popular series of children’s books about, well, Hank, a cowdog, and his associates and human family. However, Erickson’s first books were non-fiction histories and discussions of ranching and the Texas Panhandle. His book, Through Time and the Valley is one of the things that re-kindled my interest in regional history. He was reading from and talking about his latest non-fiction, Prairie Gothic, based on his family’s history.

During the Q and A after his main talk, someone asked him how he could keep going after the horrible fire last year that burned up his home and all the fences and grazing on the ranch. “If I were in that kind of [life]storm, I’d freeze,” the questioner explained. Continue reading


Dusty Evening with Fire

Drought gnaws. You can’t point to a day on the calendar and say, “On November 22, drought started.” It sidles into being as day after day passes without rain or snow, or with just enough to tease but not to produce. Animals that can leave start shifting their territories, and brown gradually, creepingly, replaces green on the landscape. The lack of soil moisture makes the air drier, and the air heats up faster, making rain less likely, which dries the soil, and so on in a feedback cycle.

And then the wind begins. And the dust. And something more than dust, something bitter and sweet and rich and terrifying. Continue reading

Let’s Just Move the River!

How hard could it be to pump water from the Mississippi River to the Llano Estacado? It’s only a few hundred miles, all uphill, across two or three states. The water in the Red River was already allocated, but the Mississippi had no in-stream requirements or water rights filed, and everyone was always complaining about flooding, so why not? Especially if Dallas or Fort Worth could be persuaded to buy some water to help pay for the pipeline, pumps, and power plants. Continue reading

Names on the Landscape

River of the Hills that Look Like Prairie-Dog Mounds. Yellow House Canyon. River of the Lost Souls in Purgatory. Plains of St. Augustine. Mt. McKinley. Jackson Square. Possum Kingdom Lake. Red River of the North, Colorado River, Colorado River, Rio Colorado, Baton Rouge.

Bog. Muskeg. Moor. Moos. Peat Bog. Beaver Meadow. Fen. Mire. Swamp. Slough. Playa. Tascosa. Cieneguilla. Polder. Spew. Snape. Brochan. Carr.

I’ve been reading a book about trails and ways in and around Britain, but an English author and poet who has also written a book of place-terms, the disappearing regional vocabulary of places, weather, and waters. The words are fascinating, and the ideas and special terms tell you a great deal about how the speakers saw the land, what they valued, and what they avoided. The Comanche, for example, used very descriptive names, describing what a feature should look like so that you could recognize it easily. There’s nothing fanciful about “The River near the Hills That Look Like Prairie-Dog Mounds” which today is the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. Continue reading

Like Grass Afire

One of the legends that developed in the United States, almost as early as the first Romantics began writing about American Indians and the landscape, was that of the noble Indian living in peace and harmony with the land and with other Indians, never killing more than he could use, using every bit of all animals, and having a special knowledge of the place. By the 1960s and ‘70s, this became “Native Peoples left no footprints on Mother Earth,” meaning that they didn’t cause environmental degradation or change, and that prior to the coming of Europeans, all of North America was pristine wilderness.

To which some brave souls said, “Pick one. Was it home to Native Americans, or untouched land?” Because a few environmental historians had gone back to looking at Indians as people, people who managed their landscape and who occasionally fouled up the landscape. The earliest records about the North American landscape described fires gone wild, foul stenches that covered miles because so many bison had been run over a cliff that at best twenty percent of them could be used at all, and so the remaining hundred rotted, polluting the water and land under them.

Not a Romantic mental picture, is it? Continue reading


On the trip this past summer, my group opted to go out onto an island to look at the Baltic. The island is rather large, and protects the city from the Baltic’s infamous winter storms. However, that day all was well, and we hoped that since tourist season had not officially started, things would be pretty quiet.

So peaceful, and quiet. It was about 75 degrees F, with a light breeze to keep the bugs away.

The island of Rugen, where we went, is a lumpy chunk of north Germany, rockier and with more variety of scenery than the mainland. We passed freshwater marshes, forests, nice farms, and lots of cars. Apparently we were not the only people trying to get ahead of the rush. Continue reading

Opal and Ash of Roses, Cinnamon, Umber, and Dun…


Sudden the desert changes,
  The raw glare softens and clings,
Till the aching Oudtshoorn ranges
  Stand up like the thrones of Kings --

High clouds began moving in in mid-afternoon. They brought no rain, but the suggestion that sunset might be colorful. Or dull, if they were thick enough. By 1800 I started to guess that color might be coming, and by 1810 the eastern sky turned soft salmon pink. I grabbed hat, jacket, and stick and headed west. Continue reading