Some time ago, George Bush made a claim to be an “environmentalist.” The elitist, who spent years trying to corner the market on the moniker, howled in protest. How could anyone in the “awl” business, as we say here in Texas, make the claim? “Worst polluters of them all.” Never mind they were Sunbelt entrepreneurs who had secured a resource base that drove every activity in the industrialized world. And never mind we’d have to use enough of it for it to reach fifty dollars a barrel for the solar energy they touted to compete. Only the self-appointed and anointed priests of the “greenies” were allowed to be called thus, but it was OK. They were going to save the world with bicycles, bean sprouts, and bio-diversity.
One could almost see the wheels turning beneath their furrowed brows during their sleepless nights as the entropy law sunk in, That being: One can only make order in one place by making more disorder in another. Others were, no doubt, sleeping better knowing the entire land mass of Illinois would not have to be covered with the solar panels needed to provide electricity to just the Sears Towers in Chicago, alone.
If good people in Colorado and Venezuela were also sleepless, it was understandable. The “true” environmentalist would be on their case soon enough as they fought the copper, silica, and bauxite mines that tried to supply a resource base for the collectors, glass, and aluminum for the solar panel industry. Disorder of that magnitude would not be allowed either. Stasis was the order of the day. If that meant death to capitalism, so be it. Socialism might have the reputation of making the world stand stock still, but it could bring about proper land use for the benefit of all.
If one had any doubt about what that land use entailed or the political stripe of non-government organizations that walk lock-step with the governments they court, one only need join one and attend their social functions to learn of their land “reform.” Not satisfied with the Migratory Bird Act and international treaties to protect wildlife, much less faith in other Americans who also love the wildlife, they now want ALL THE LAND UNDER THE FLYWAYS. Flyways that are not narrow corridors separated by large landmasses, but overlap to cover much of the United States, and reach from the North Slope of Alaska to Guatemala. For the most part they are the privately owned lands of the newest insomniacs: Americas’ farmers and ranchers.
Some years ago, there was a social event attended by officials and members of any number of wildlife NGO’s. The gathering was a weekend long campout on a Texas ranch that played host to the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund. The host’s ranch was near the Brazos River, but had no river frontage. A neighboring rancher invited the guests to his river frontage to explore. At the end of the day, when everyone was plied with a goodly amount of food and liquor (one of the better truth serums) there were conversations that centered on the discovery that day of three threatened or endangered specie of flora and fauna they found on the riparian landowners’ land. Ned Fritz, a mover and shaker with the Dallas Nature Conservancy suggested, “We ought to try and figure out a way to get this. This old guy doesn’t even know what he’s got.” There was general agreement with only one guest leaving in disgust.
If landowners along the Brazos thought this was any more than the musings of otherwise satiated partygoers, they were soon to learn better. Year, after year, the Sierra Club in concert with Texas Parks and Wildlife attempted to have the Texas legislature condemn greenbelt easements that would be financially uncompensated, yet off limits to any development. Cows needing water from a windmill might as well pray to be “shipped.” Dying of thirst was certainly a possibility along a river that may have been named, Brazos de Dios, (the arms of God) but never the less was deemed too salty to drink.
And God forbid the impoundment of potable water in such places. It destroyed habitat even if the new habitat would attract waterfowl. Too much chance they might be eaten at some point by the less desirable “hungry” that had an unnatural fascination with things that go “boom.”
That ambitious Wild and Scenic Rivers land-grab plan included stretches along eight Texas rivers, including this stretch as well as many other pristine segments of the Brazos River. The only activities that would be permitted were the agendas of the NGO’s. Bird watching, camping, and exploring. Activities that would allow canoeist using the river to enter private land.
At the time, the opinion of the Texas Parks and Wildlife was that the most persistent and ongoing lobbying effort was for, MORE PARK LANDS. One went so far as to say, “all these farmers and ranchers ought to be more willing to share their land with all these people bottled-up in the city.” The dirty little secret was out. The people who said that communing with nature was a bona fide religion worthy of being exercised, or that bio-diversity would save the planet had simply run out of PLACES TO RECREATE. More land would be needed for the minions of the faithful who were “bottled-up.”
It was an intriguing idea as the possibility of trade-offs sunk in. The Wal-Marts of Texas had any number of fallow parking lots from time to time and, no doubt, were going to be thrilled with the prospect of providing the nation’s consumers with a few more bushels of soybeans. The tarmacs of airports such as the Dallas-Fort worth International Airport that had been built on some of the most prime farmland in America were enough to start another land rush. . The ill-advised opinion of past Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, who said the way out of the farming mess was to plant, “fence row to fence row” might now be construed to mean, “plow, loading gate to loading gate.”
Most farm and ranching families practice less ridiculous trade-offs. Not only do they have two-hundred-year histories of a close and symbiotic relationship with the wild life, but are well versed in its needs. Grain and peanuts left in the field sustain it in winter, exchanged for gleaning the fields of insects in the spring. Flocks of red-tailed hawks bravely follow the tractors in spring to consume mice and grubs turned up by the plows. Great flocks of snowy-white cattle egrets follow grazing cattle to hunt voracious insects escaping the lumbering tread of nine-hundred-pound beasts. And the much maligned (by ignorant Audubon members) cow birds that predate the nests of other birds, never the less, bravely ride the backs of those same bovine beasts to remove any trace of the dog tick that carries Limes Disease. . The grackles and non-native starlings introduced from England and considered “trash birds” by the “discriminating” follow behind waves of army worms in spring as they pass through, and when the fall web worms come, that same “trashy” army of birds return to rout the enemy.
Those that migrate are the harbingers of spring. More finely tuned than Dopler radar, more savvy than the local weatherman, they announce it’s arrival in Texas when some number of lengthening days passes through some ancient hourglass, when a southern prevailing wind blows for some magic number of days, they leave. Driven by the wind, they may reach speeds of forty-eight miles an hour. And depending on wind speed and average age, land in Kansas, Nebraska, or Ohio. They arrive on the land of our neighboring farmers to nest in fields and marshes left fallow by design by the practitioners of modern agri-business.
A few that winter here announce spring in unlikely urban environs to those willing to make heroic sacrifices. The residents of Hinckley, Ohio welcome hundreds of black vultures every spring to the chagrin of county officials who become the butt of much gallows humor and wild speculation about the prospect of their longevity. They spend their summers amusing the populace with their antics as they clown about the upper reaches of a long-abused courthouse. Not nearly as fastidious as the swallows of Capistrano, they keep the local sandblasting companies busy after they head south to clean our fields and roads of road-kills and winter casualties.
The farmers and ranchers make sacrifices, too. It was something they decided long ago to be able to work at something they loved. To live in remote places and on lands abundant with wild life
Far from more sophisticated places, their entertainment consists of fishing and hunting, high school football and an occasional movie, if they’re lucky. Their art is in coffee table books, in cafes decorated with the vacant, grinning stares of longhorn cow skulls on the walls, and colorful quilts on their beds. Quilts that are made, according to one, “as fast as I can to keep my family warm, and as beautiful as I can, so I don’t cry.”
Their neighbors also make sacrifices, picking up the pieces when things go wrong, but knowing that seizing farmland for the exclusive use of willful and opportunistic wildlife will not solve the problems.
There was a local car dealership that blew their labor-burden-budget by staying open late, and opening early at daylight, to open the huge overhead doors to release a mother barn owl and then welcome her “home” at dawn, after she hunted within a sixty-mile radius of her nest. She had decided to raise a family in their garage. As they did their job, they saw she did hers.
There was a long-haul trucker who made his living at forty cents a mile as he regularly drove Interstate 20 between California and Texas, and point’s east. He remained at the Petro Truck Stop on Interstate 20 in Weatherford, Texas until he could find someone to help the great horned owl he hit and injured. For two days he cradled a cardboard box in his lap in the restaurant and parking lot. The unlikely-looking bird lover was bearded, wore gold earrings, a bandanna, and a multitude of tattoos. He offered a phone number as he handed over the box. It contained a cross-eyed bird with a slight head injury, a bird like hundreds of his kind over the last hundred years, who had learned to hunt the roads ahead of vehicles using the advantage of on-going headlights, if not the ability to read an increase in the speed-limit signs. The phone call he received later contained good news.
There was a rock miner who rescued a family of owls that were being raised amid the deafening roar of the upper reaches of the towering cone and crusher of an aggregate mine on the Brazos River. He may have only suspected that they had eyesight eleven times more acute than humans have, but also knew, after almost seventy-five years of observing them, that they would need to retain the acute hearing necessary to detect a mouse under a foot of snow come winter.
And then there was Jimmy and Lynette Lamour, a couple who owned the movie theatre in Graham, Texas, a small west Texas town on the upper reaches of the Brazos River, suffering the decline of the oil boom and the bust of the cattle market. A tiny, fledgling mocking bird had fallen in their yard and its “feed me, feed me” shrieks had come to the attention of the neighborhood cats. Late that evening, they made a one-hundred-eighty-mile trip downstream to deliver him to someone who might know how to care for him. He was carried, not in a box, but on a woman’s lap to keep him warm. He didn’t have much of a tail, and so, somewhere along the way, his name became “Bob.”
Unless an owl has eaten him, he still lives along the Brazos River. Except for the owls, he doesn’t care who watches his antics or hears his songs. He could care less about wildlife refuges, Agenda 21, or any of the NGO’s who want the land for themselves. Along with many others, he lives on a river called the “Arms of God,” among those who believe “His eye is on the sparrow,” but just in case…on Saturday night… have been known to close the only picture show in town.
Judith Vinson is a Texas rancher.