Southeast corner of Pecan Tree Pasture, Johnsongrass and big bluestem (September 4, 2011).
Drought has come to the Southwest, particularly Texas. Wildfires erupt and I view every cloud in the sky as either friend or foe, rain-cumulus or pyrocumulus. Man lives in oscillating cycles: birth, maturity, degeneration and death; spring, summer, winter and fall; day and night. Nature’s theater, the grandest show — in fact the only show on the road — brings hot, dry days to us, an uneasy audience that sits without a program in hand.
Raising my hands and putting on a broad-brimmed hat to shield myself from the sun, I think, Is there is no way out of this parched country of west Texas, this incessant drought? As a matter of habit, I drove to the far field two days ago, then again yesterday, and what I saw brought me out of the funk and into the reality of primary, nascent things that fosters renewal, not despair. What I saw was the green field of my far pasture, Pecan Tree Pasture, a 35 acre field of buffalo grass, side-oats gramma, little bluestem, big bluestem and Johnsongrass that stood higher than my head! The rain of about 2.5 inches two weeks ago provided enough moisture for a re-eruption of growth.
Trying to understand the dissonance of yellow-brown drought in Texas and this field of green grass, I gazed deeper and deeper into the field, trying to resolve these issues of color. Then, it penetrated: I was not looking deep enough, for beneath the grass lay soil, the wellspring for grass, the fountain of energy that we all thrive upon. Well springs the soil.
Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, p. 216, New York: Oxford Press, 1949.
In primary school, we all saw the pyramid chart of soil, plants, animals, man, sun and the flowing of energy back and forth. The tooth and claw of the pyramid remained omnipresent, but never voiced. We knew one thing lived by absorbing another living thing, whether cougar on deer, fox on rabbit or kids on hamburgers, but our teachers for reasons of refinement side-stepped the tooth, the claw. The revealing of one thing eating another lay with fathers and uncles in the field on cloudy, windy and cold days. Perhaps that is how it should be.
To know my soil, early this morning I unfolded the Soil Survey Map of Erath County, Texas, in order to type the soil of the far field I saw yesterday. The map is ninety-one years old (1920); it is still accurate, still a good map. My land, temporary occupant that I am, encompasses three soil types. First, I have rough stony land (R) upon which sits the house, barn, stables and arena. Second, the tree grove of American elm, willow, live oak, red oak, juniper and pecan rests upon Frio silty clay loam, Colluvial phase (F). Through the tree grove runs Salt Creek, an intermittent flowing stream.
In the far field, where big bluestem is stretching upwards of seven-feet in height, a pasture that has not been grazed by Angus cattle in four years, is Frio loam (Fm), deposits of earth that have rushed down from High Salt Cove and between two creeks, Barton Creek and Salt Creek. From Frio loam springs the grass in the far field. The doe and fawn I disturbed yesterday lie between the high stands of big bluestem, and I lapse back to Oklahoma’s plains and the waving blue-red waves of autumnal bluestem that rustle with wind, the stems making sounds as they brush against one another. The pasture holds the moisture of the last rain and though I am not a person of edgy competition, I would put my far field of green grass up against any non-fertilized field in Erath County for height, vigor, nutrients and wildlife.
After tending the far field for eight years and seeing the soil’s fountain of energy this late summer, How is it that man fouls such richness, such gifts? The answer is complex, but knowable. The resolution to stop the pollution begins with a respect for knowledge, deep knowledge that is revealed early and, unfortunately, forgotten early on with so many other things in our youth, a bulletin board that displayed the food chain in first grade. The ethic of conservation and sustainability rests upon simple principles that need the status of a Commandment, an article of the Constitution, a catechism of the church. Better yet, we should recover that which was lost when we began to make pottery, metal and textiles thousands of years ago, or left on that bulletin board at Coggin Elementary School in Brownwood, Texas.
Land is a fountain of energy. In my far field, Frio loam is a wellspring.
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Click to enlarge. Soil survey map, Salt Creek and Barton Creek merger, from Soil Survey of Erath County, Texas (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1922). The far field is located at about center-left along Salt Fork and is associated with the symbol, Fm, for Frio loam.
Notes, corrections and additions:
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac And Sketches Here and There, New York: Oxford Press, 1949. I am quoting from the paperback, special commemorative edition that has an introduction by Robert Finch.
Soil Survey of Erath County, Texas, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1922. The map was drawn in 1920, hence, it is ninety-one years old. I found it in the workshop of the house I once owned in Mingus, Texas. The house was know as the Old Bertino Place, named for the Italian family that had come to the area to work in the coal mines of Thurber in the nineteenth century.
I have been reading a considerable amount of literature this summer: Aldo Leopold, Thoreau, Tolkien, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Edward Hoagland, Black Elk, Frank Waters, Wordsworth, Catulus. I have something to write. Whether it sells or not is a by-product. I have to write, I really do.