I DON'T KNOW HOW TO START, BUT PERHAPS THAT'S NO matter. I am only 35 years old, and the land is more than a billion; how can I be expected to know what to say beyond "Please" and "Thank you" and "Ma'am"? The language of the hill country of Texas, or of any sacred place, is not the language of pen on paper or even of the human voice. It is the language of water cutting down through the country's humped chest of granite, cutting down to the heart and soul of the earth, down to a thing that lies far below and beyond our memory.
Being frail and human, however, memory is all we have to work with. I have to believe that somewhere out there is a point where my language--memory--will intersect with the hill country's language: the scent of cedar, the feel of morning mist, the blood of deer, glint of moon, shimmer of heat, crackle of ice, mountain lions, scorpions, centipedes, rattlesnakes and cacti. The cool, dark oaks and gold-leaved hickories along the creeks; the language of the hill country seems always to return to water. Along the creeks is where most of the wildlife is found. It is along a creek that the men in my family built a hunting cabin 60 years ago. We have lived in Texas for 120 years, and the men in my family have always hunted deer--hunting them in Tennessee before that, and Mississippi, and perhaps all the way back to the dawn of man, to the first hunter. Perhaps that link across the generations is completely unbroken, one of the few unfragmented systems remaining in this century: The Basses hunt deer--a small thing, but still whole and intact.
On this thousand acres deep in the hill country, though, it is only for the last 60 years that we've hunted deer--once a year, in November.
Sixty years. The land changes so much more slowly than we do. We race across it, gathering it all in--the scents, the sounds, the feel of that thousand acres. Granddaddy's gone now; Uncle Horace, John Dallas, Howard, gone too. Already I've lived long enough to see these men in my family cross that intersection where they finally learn and embrace the real language of the earth--the language of granite and history--leaving us, the survivors, behind, still speaking of them in terms of "memory. . . ."
We have not yet quite caught up with the billion-year-old land we love, that harbors us, but as we get older, we're beginning to learn a word or two and beginning to see (especially as we have children) how our own lives start to cut knifelike down through all that granite, the stone hump of the hill country, until we are like rivers and creeks ourselves, and we reach the end and the bottom, and then we understand. . . .
WATER. THE CITIES AND TOWNS TO the south and east of the hill country--Austin, San Antonio, Houston, La Grange, Uvalde, Goliad--I could chart them all, thousands of them, for they are all my home. These towns, these cities and these people drink from the heart of the hill country. The water in their bodies is the water that has come from beneath the hills, from the mystical 175-mile-long underground river called the Edwards Aquifer. The water is gathered in the hill country by the forces of nature, percolates down through the hills and mountains, and flows south, underground, toward the ocean.
That water we don't drink or pump onto our crops or give to our livestock--that tiny part that eludes us--continues on to the Gulf Coast, into the bays and estuaries, where delicate salinities are maintained for the birds, shrimp and other coastal inhabitants that at first glance seem to be far away from and unrelated to the inland mountains.
A scientist will tell you that it's all connected--that if you live in Texas, you must protect the honor and integrity of that country's core, for you are tied to it. It is as much a part of you as family--but if you are a child and given to daydreaming and wondering, I believe that you'll understand this by instinct. You don't need proof that the water moving through those shady creeks up in the wild hills and mountains is the same that later moves through your body. You can instead stand outside--even in the city, even in such a place as Houston--and look north with the wind in your face (or with a salt breeze at your back, carrying your essence back to the hill country like an offering), and you can feel the tremble and shimmer of that magic underground river, the yearning and timelessness of it, just beneath your 7-year-old feet. You can know of the allegiance you owe it, can sense this in a way that not even the scientists know. It is more like the way, when you are in your mother's arms, or your grandmother's, that you know it's all tied together, and that someday you are going to understand it all.
Of course that's the point of this story--that I was one of those children--and that I am here to say thank you to the country in which I was birthed and to ask, please, that the last good part of it not be divided into halves and then quarters and then eighths, and on, then, further divided into the invisibility of neglect or dishonor.
THE MEN WOULD GO NORTH IN the fall--my father and his brother Jimmy, driving up to the hill country from Houston, while Granddaddy came down from Ft. Worth.
They would meet up in the high hills and low mountains, in the center of the state. I'd stand there on the back porch in Houston with my mother and watch them drive off--it would often be raining, and I'd step out into the rain to feel it on my face--and I'd know that they were going to a place of wildness, a place where they came from. I'd know it was an act of honor, of ritual, of integrity. I was that boy, and knew these things, but did not seriously believe that I would ever be old enough to go in the fall myself.
Instead, I sought out those woods I could reach. We lived out near the west edge of Houston, near what is now the Beltway, a few hundred yards from the slow curls of Buffalo Bayou. While the men in my family went up into the hill country (and at all other times of the year), I would spend my time in the tiny de facto wilderness between outlying subdivisions. Back in those still-undeveloped woods was a stagnating swamp, an old oxbow cut off from the rest of the bayou; you almost had to get lost to find it. I called it "Hidden Lake," and I would wade out into the swamp and seine for minnows, crawdads, mud puppies and polliwogs with a soup strainer. In those woods, not a mile from the Houston city limits, I saw turtles, bats, skunks, snakes, raccoons, deer, flying squirrels, rabbits and armadillos. There were bamboo thickets, too, and of course the bayou itself, with giant alligator gars floating in patches of sunlit chocolate water, and Spanish moss hanging back in the old forest and wild violets growing along the banks. A lot of wildness can exist in a small place, if it is the right kind of country: a good country.
That country was, of course, too rich to last. The thick oaks fell to the saws, as did the dense giant hickories and the sun-towering, wind-murmuring pines. It's all concrete now; even the banks of the bayou have been channeled with cement. I remember my shock at finding the first survey stakes out in the grasslands (where once there had been buffalo) leading into those big woods along the bayou's rich edge. I remember asking my mother if the survey stakes meant someone was going to build a house out there--a cabin, perhaps. When told that a road was coming, I pulled the stakes up, but the road came anyway, and then the office buildings, and the highway, and the subdivisions.
THE MEN WOULD COME BACK FROM THE WOODS AFTER A week. They would have bounty with them--a deer, heavy with antlers, strapped to the hood of the car (in those days people in the city did not have trucks), or a wild turkey. A pocket of blackjack acorns; a piece of granite. An old rusting wolf trap found while out walking; an arrowhead. A piece of iron ore, red as rubies. A quartz boulder for my mother's garden. And always, they brought back stories: more stories, it seemed, than you could ever tell.
Sometimes my father or uncle would have something new about him--something that I had not seen when he'd left. A cut in the webbing of his hand cleaning the deer. Or a light in his eyes, a kind of easiness. Beard stubble, sometimes. These were men who had moved to the city and taken city jobs, who drove to work every morning wearing a suit, but they came back from the hill country with the beginnings of beards. There was always something different about them. The woods had marked them.
BECAUSE MY PARENTS COULD SEE that I had an instinctive draw to the animal world--to be more frank, because they could see that I was aflame with the wild--they did their best to keep me nourished, there in the city. My mother took me to the zoo every week, where I'd spend hours looking at the animals with a joy and an excitement, looking at exhibits that would now crush me with sadness. We went to the Museum of Natural History every Saturday. I heard lectures on jumping spiders and wolf spiders. I breathed fog against the aquarium panes, my face pressed to the glass as I watched the giant soft-shell turtles paddle slowly through their underwater, eerie green light. I bought a little rock sample of magnetite from the gift shop. The placard that came with the magnetite said it had come from Llano County, Texas. That was one of the two counties my father and uncle and grandfather hunted (the thousand acres straddled Llano and Gillespie counties).
This only fueled the fire of my love for a country I had not even seen--a country I could feel in my heart, however, and could feel in my hands, all the way to the tips of my fingers: a country whose energy, whose shimmering life force resonated all the way out into the plains, down into the flatlands.
All that sweet water, just beneath our feet. But only so much of it: It was not inexhaustible. We couldn't, or weren't supposed to, take more than was given to us. That was one of the rules of the system. My father, and the other men who hunted it, understood about this system, and other such systems; for them, the land, like our family itself, was a continuum. Each year, each step hiked across those steep slick-rock hills cut down deeper into the rocks, deeper into memory, gave them more stories, more knowledge, and at the same time, took them ever closer to the mystery that lay at the base of it.
I'd grip that rough, glittering magnetite like a talisman, would put my fingers to it and try to feel how it was different from other rocks--would try to feel the pull, the affinity it had for things made of iron. I'd hold it up to my arms and try to feel if it stirred my blood, and I believed that I could feel it.
I'd fall asleep listening to the murmur of the baseball game on the radio with the rock stuck magically to the iron frame of my bed. In the morning, I would sometimes take the rock and place it against my father's compass. I'd watch as the needle always followed the magnetite, and I felt my heart, and everything else inside me, swing with that compass needle, too.
WHEN WE RUN OUT OF COUNTRY, WE WILL RUN OUT OF stories.
When we run out of stories, we will run out of sanity.
We will not be able to depend on each other for anything--not for friendship or mercy, and certainly not for love or understanding.
Of course, we shouldn't protect a wild core such as the Texas hill country because it is a system still intact with the logic and sanity that these days too often eludes our lives in the cities. We should instead protect the hill country simply for its own sake, to show that we are still capable of understanding (and practicing) the concept of honor: loving a thing the way it is, and trying, for once, to not change it.
I like to think that in the 60 years we've been hunting and camping on that rough, hidden thousand acres--through which Willow Creek cuts, flows, forks and twists, with murmuring little waterfalls over one- and two-foot ledges, the water sparkling--that we have not changed the humped land one bit.
I know that it has changed us. My grandfather hunted that country, as have his sons, and now we, my brothers and cousins, hunt it with them, and in the spring, we now bring our young children into the country to show them the part, the huge part, that is not hunting (and yet that for us is all inseparable from the hunting): the fields of bluebonnets and crimson paintbrushes, the baby raccoons, the quail, the zone-tailed hawks and buzzards circling Hudson Mountain, the pink capitol domes of granite rising all through the land as if once there lived a civilization even more ancient than our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. . . .
A continuous thing is rare these days, when fragmentation seems more than ever to be the rule. I remember the first time I walked with my daughter on the thousand acres, on the land our family calls the "deer pasture." The loose, disintegrating granite chat crunched under her tiny tennis shoes, and she gripped my finger tight to keep from falling. The sound of that gravel underfoot (the pink mountains being worn away, along with our bodies) was a sound I'd heard all my life at the deer pasture, but this time, this first time with my daughter gripping my finger and looking down at the loose pink gravel that was making that sound, it affected me so strongly that I felt faint, felt so light that I thought I might take flight. . . .
A country, a landscape, can be sacred in an infinite number of ways. The quartz boulders in my mother's garden--my father brought her one each year, and I thought, and still think, it was one of the most romantic things I'd seen, that even while he was in the midst of wildness that one week each year, he was still thinking of her.
Other families had store-bought Douglas fir or blue spruce trees for Christmas; we had the spindly, strange mountain juniper ("cedar") from the deer pasture. Even though we lived to the south, we were still connected to that wild core, and these rituals and traditions were important to us, so fiercely felt and believed in that one might even call them a form of worship. We were raised Protestants, but in our hearts' and bodies' innocence were cutting a very fine line, tightroping along the mystical edge of pantheism. When Granddaddy was dying, and we went to see him in the hospital room in Ft. Worth, I took a handful of arrowhead fragments from the deer pasture and put them under his bed. It seemed inconceivable to me that he not die as he had lived--always in some kind of contact with that wildness and the specificity of that thousand acres.
WHEN MOM WAS SICK--SMALL, YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL, the strongest and best patient the doctors had ever had, they all said--and she was sick a long time, living for years solely on the fire and passion within, long after the marrow had left her bones and the doctors could not bring it back, when she still never had anything other than a smile for each day; when my mother was sick, my father and brothers and I would take turns bringing her flowers from the deer pasture.
One of us would walk in through the door with that vase from the wild. There would be store-bought flowers, too, but those splashes of reds, yellows and blues, from lands she'd walked, lands she knew, are what lit up her face the most. The specificity of our lives together, and of our love: Those colors said it as well as the land can say anything--which is to say, perfectly. Indian paintbrushes. Bluebonnets. Liatris. Shooting stars. I'm certain those flowers helped her as much as did our platelets, the very blood and iron of ourselves, which we also shared with her. She really loved wildflowers, and she really loved the hill and brush country of Texas, and she really loved us.
MY MOTHER LOVED TO DRINK ICED tea. Sometimes she and my father and brothers and I would go up to the deer pasture in the dead, sullen heat of summer, in the shimmering brightness. We'd ride around in the jeep wearing straw hats. We'd get out and walk down the creek, to the rock slide: a stream-polished half-dome of pink granite with a sheet of water trickling over it, a 20-foot slide into the plunge pool below, with cool, clear water six feet deep, and a mud turtle (his face striped yellow, as if with war paint) and two big Midland soft-shell turtles living there. An osprey nest, huge branches and sticks, rested in the dead cottonwood at the pool's edge.
My brothers and I would slide down that half-dome and into the pool again and again. A hundred degrees in the summer, and we'd go up and down that algae-slick rock like otters. We'd chase the turtles, would hold our breath and swim after them, paddling underwater in that lucid water while our parents sat in the rocks above and watched. What a gift it is, to see one's children happy, and engaged in the world, loving it.
We'd walk farther down the creek, then: a family. Fuller. My mother would finish her tea, would rattle ice cubes in her plastic cup. She'd crunch the ice cubes in that heat. She always drank her tea with a sprig of mint in it. At some point on one of our walks, she must have tossed her ice cubes and mint sprig out, because now there are two little mint fields along the creek: one by the camp house and one down at the water gap. I like to sit in the rocks above those little mint patches and look, and listen, and smell, and think. I feel the sun dappling on my arms, and watch the small birds flying around in the old oak and cedar along the creek. Goshawks courting in April, and wild turkeys gobbling. I like to sit there above the mint fields and feel my soul cutting down through that bedrock. It's happening fast. I, too, am becoming the earth.
What happens to us when all the sacred, all the whole, is gone--when there is no more whole? There will be only fragments of stories, fragments of culture, fragments of integrity. Even a child standing on the porch in Houston with the rain in his face can look north and know that it is all tied together, that we are the warblers, we are the zone-tailed hawks, we are the underground river: that it is all holy, and that some of it should not be allowed to disappear, as has so much, and so many of us, already.
Sycamores grow by running water; cottonwoods grow by still water. If we know the simple mysteries, then think of all the complex mysteries that lie just beneath us, buried in the bedrock, the bedrock we have been entrusted with protecting. STORIES. ON MY UNCLE JIMmy's left calf, there is a scar where the wild pigs caught him one night. He and my father were coming back to camp after dark when they got between a sow and boar and their piglets. The piglets squealed in fright, which ignited the rage of the sow and boar. My father went up one tree and Uncle Jimmy up another, but the boar caught Jimmy with his tusk, cut the muscle clean to the bone.
Back in camp, Granddaddy and John Dallas and Howard and old Mr. Brooks (there for dominoes that night) heard all the yelling, as did their dogs. The men came running with hounds and lanterns, globes of light swinging crazily through the woods. They stumbled into the middle of the pigs, too. My father and Uncle Jimmy were up in the tops of small trees like raccoons. There were pigs everywhere, pigs and dogs fighting, men dropping their lanterns and climbing trees. . . . That sow and boar could have held an entire town at bay. They ran the dogs off and kept the men treed there in the darkness for over an hour, Uncle Jimmy's pants leg wet with blood, and fireflies blinking down on the creek below, and the boar's angry grunts, the sow's furious snufflings below, and the frightened murmurs and squeals of the little pigs. . . . The logic of that system was inescapable: Don't get between a sow and boar and their young.
The land, and our stories, have marked us.
MY FATHER AND I ARE GEOLogists. Uncle Jimmy and his two youngest sons manufacture steel pipe and sell it for use in drilling down through bedrock in search of oil, gas and water. Our hunting cabin is made of stone. We have a penchant for building stone walls. Our very lives are a metaphor for embracing the earth: for gripping boulders and lifting them to our chest and stacking them and building a life in and around the country's heart. I've sat on those same boulders and watched a mother bobcat and her two kittens come down to the creek to drink. There used to be an occasional jaguar in this part of the world, traveling up from Mexico, but that was almost 100 years ago.
Granddaddy would've been 90 in October. He and the old guy we leased from, Howard, were born in the same year, 1903, which was the number we used for the lock combination on the last gate leading into the property. It's one of the last places in the world that still makes sense to me. It is the place of my family, but it is more: It is a place that still abides by its own rules. The creeks have not yet been channeled with concrete. There is still a wildness beating beneath the rocks, and in the atoms of every thing.
Each year, we grow closer to the land. Each year, it marks us more deeply. When the lightning strike burned the top of what is now called the Burned-Off Hill, we saw firsthand how for 20 years the wildlife preferred that area, but finally the protein content had been lowered again, and it was time for another fire.
My cousin Rick and I found a dead rattlesnake out on the highway two years ago. We put it in the back of the truck along with the wood for that night's campfire, put it down there in the middle of all that wood. That night Russell and Randy unloaded the wood, gathering great big armloads of it. Rick and I shined the flashlights in Russell's face then, and he realized he'd gathered up a great big armload of rattlesnake. We yelled at him to drop that snake, but he couldn't, it was all tangled up everywhere, all around his arms.
The land and its stories, and our stories: The time Randy and I were picking up one of what would be the new cabin's four cornerstones, to load into the truck. August. Randy dropped his end of the sandstone slab (about the size of a coffin) but didn't get his hand free in time. It might have been my fault. No more tea-sipping for cousin Randy. He sat down, stunned in the heat, and stared at the crushed pulpy end of that little finger. I thought strangely how some small part of it was already mashed in between the atoms of the rock, and how his blood was already dripping back into the iron-rich soil. Randy tried to shake off the pain, tried to stand and resume work, but the second he did his eyes rolled heavenward and he turned ghost-white in that awful heat and fell to the ground, began rolling down the steep hill, to the bottom of the gulch.
On that hot day, all the little birds and other animals back in the cool shade of the oaks and cedars were resting, waiting for night to cool things off. What an odd creature man is, they had to be thinking. But we couldn't wait for night or its coolness. We were aflame with a love for that wild land, and our long, rock-sure history on it: our loving place on it.
GRANDDADDY KNEW THE old Texan's trick of luring an armadillo in close by tossing pebbles in the dry leaves. The armadillo, with its radar-dish ears, believes the sound is that of jumping insects, and will follow the sound of your tossed pebbles right up to your feet before it understands the image of your boot or tennis shoe and leaps straight up, sneezes, then flees in wild alarm.
THERE IS A STARTLING ASsemblage of what I think of as "tender" life up there, seemingly a paradox for such a harsh, rocky, hot country. Cattails along the creeks, tucked in between those folds of granite, those narrow canyons with names like Fat Man's Misery and boulder-strewn cataclysms such as Hell's Half Acre. Newts, polliwogs, bullfrogs, leopard frogs, mud turtles, pipits and wagtails, luna moths and viceroys, ferns and mosses. . . .
The old rock, the beautiful outcrops, holds the power of the hill country, but the mystery is the water; that's what brings the rock to life.
I remember one winter night, camped down at the deer pasture, when a rimy ice-fog had moved in, blanketing the hill country. I was just a teen-ager. I had stepped outside for a moment for the fresh, cold air; everyone else was still in the cabin, playing dominoes. (Granddaddy smoked like a chimney.) I couldn't see a thing in all that cold fog. There was just the sound of the creek running past camp; as it always has, as I hope it always will.
Then I heard the sound of a goose honking--approaching from the north. There is no sound more beautiful, especially at night, and I stood there and listened. Another goose joined in--that wild, magnificent honking--and then another.
It seemed, standing there in the dark, with the cabin's light behind me--the snap! snap! snap! sound of Granddaddy the domino king playing his ivories against the linoleum table--that I could barely stand the hugeness, the unlimited future of life. I could feel my youth, could feel my heart beating, and it seemed those geese were coming straight for me, as if they, too, could feel that barely controlled wildness, and were attracted to it.
When they were directly above me, they began to fly in circles, more geese joining them. They came lower and lower, until I could hear the underlying readiness of those resonant honks; I could hear their grunts, their intake of air before each honk.
My father came out to see what was going on.
"They must be lost," he said. "This fog must be all over the hill country. Our light may be the only one they can see for miles," he said. "They're probably looking for a place to land, to rest for the night, but can't find their way down through the fog."
The geese were still honking and flying in circles, not a hundred feet over our heads. I'm sure they could hear the gurgle of the creek below. I stared up into the fog, expecting to see the first brave goose come slipping down through that fog, wings set in a glide of faith for the water it knew was just below. They were so close to it.
But they did not come. They circled our camp all night, keeping us awake; trying, it seemed, to pray that fog away with their honking, their sweet music; and in the morning, both the fog and the geese were gone, and it seemed that some part of me was gone with them, some tame or civilized part, and they had left behind a boy, a young man, who was now thoroughly wild and who thoroughly loved wild things. And I often still have the dream I had that night, that I was up with the geese, up in the cold night, peering down at the fuzzy glow of the cabin lights in the fog, that dim beacon of hope and mystery, safety and longing. . . .
THE FIRST LONGING YEARS of my life that were spent exploring the small and doomed hemmed-in woods around Houston sometimes seem like days of the imagination, compared to my later days in the hill country. It seemed, when I went to Hidden Lake, or to the zoo, or the arboretum, or the museum, that I was only treading water.
I fell asleep each night with my aquariums bubbling, the postgame baseball show murmuring. That magic rock from Llano County, the magnetite, stuck to the side of my bed like a remora, or a guardian, seeing me through the night and perhaps filling me with a strange energy, a strange allegiance for a place I had not yet seen.
Finally the day came when I was old enough for my first hunting trip up to the deer pasture. My father took me there for "the second hunt," in late December. I would not go on the first hunt, the November hunt, until after I was out of college and a hunter. The "second hunt" was a euphemism for just camping, for hiking around, and for maybe occasionally carrying a rifle.
My father and I drove through the night in his old green-and-white 1956 Ford, through country I'd never seen, beneath stars I'd never seen. My father poured black coffee from an old thermos to stay awake. The trip took a long time in those days--more than six hours, with gravel clattering beneath the car for the last couple of hours.
I put my hand against the car window. It was colder, up in the hills. The stars were brighter. When I couldn't stay awake any longer, overwhelmed by the senses, I climbed into the back seat and wrapped up in an old Hudson's Bay blanket and lay down on the seat and slept. The land's rough murmur and jostling beneath me was a lullaby.
When I awoke, we had stopped for gas in Llano. We were the only car at the service station. We were surrounded by a pool of light. I could see the dark woods at the edge of the gravel parking lot, could smell the cedar. My father was talking to the gas station attendant. Before I was all the way awake, I grabbed a flashlight and got out and hurried out toward the woods. I went into the cedars, got down on my hands and knees, and with the flashlight began searching for the magnetite that I was sure was all over the place. I picked up small red rocks and held them against the metal flashlight to see if they'd stick.
When my father and the attendant came and got me out of the woods and asked where I had been going and what I'd been doing, I told them, "Looking for magnetite." How hard it must be, to be an adult, I thought then. We drove on: an improbable series of twists and turns, down washed-out canyons and up ridges, following thin caliche roads that shone ghostly white in the moonlight. I did not know then that I would come to learn every bend in those roads, every dip and rise, by heart. We clattered across a high-centered narrow cattle guard, and then another, and were on the property that we'd been leasing for 30 years--the thousand acres, our heart.
It was so cold. We were on our land. We did not own it, but it was ours because we loved it, belonged to it, and because we were engaged in its system. It dictated our movements as surely as it did those of any winter-range deer herd, any migrating warbler. It was ours because we loved it.
We descended toward the creek, and our cabin. The country came into view, brilliant in the headlights. Nighthawks flittered and flipped in the road before us, danced eerie acrobatic flights that looked as if they were trying to smother the dust in the road with their soft wings. Their eyes were glittering red in the headlights. It was as if we had stumbled into a witches' coven, but I wasn't frightened. They weren't bad witches; they were just wild.
Giant jack rabbits, with ears as tall again as they were, raced back and forth before us--leaped six feet into the air and reversed direction mid-leap, hit the ground running: a sea of jack rabbits before us, flowing, the high side of their seven-year cycle. A coyote darted into our headlights' beams, grabbed a jack rabbit and raced away. One jack rabbit sailed over the hood of our car, coming so close to the windshield that I could see his wide, manic eyes, looking so human. A buck deer loped across the road, just ahead. It was an explosion of life, all around us. Moths swarmed our headlights.
We had arrived at the wild place.