Place in the Heart

My husband and I spend as much time as possible on our family’s ranch in Bosque County. We work hard, enjoy simple pleasures, and find meaning in each day. The land belongs to us. And, we’ve discovered, we belong to it.

November 1999By Comments

SOUTH OF GLEN ROSE, A STRING OF HILLS CALLED THE SEVEN KNOBS juts out of the rolling plains. To the west, the land rises and falls in waves of rock and cedar. Blue ridges notch the horizon. This land on the edge of West Texas and at the top of the Hill Country is my second home now. Three years ago my in-laws bought some property about 75 miles southwest of Fort Worth, where my husband and I live. But it feels a thousand miles away from the city’s bustling shopping malls and gridlocked freeways. We call the place “the ranch,” although it pales in comparison to the huge spreads of Texas lore. But to us it’s big—121 acres of rocky hills, limestone ledges, cedar, oak, yucca, prickly pear, and a few grassy pastures and meadows. It’s the kind of land that writer John Graves, who lives near Glen Rose, calls “hard scrabble.” Land that’s not “useful” in the sense that you can make a good living off it, but land that—once you spend some time on it, observe it, and become part of it—makes living good.

Getting to know this piece of land has been like getting to know a person. Forming a bond takes time, patience, an open mind, and a sense of humor. It’s a relationship that could easily and pleasantly occupy a lifetime, because land is always and never the same. It is timeless, yet it constantly remakes itself with the seasons, the weather, even the time of day. And as you get to know the plants, the animals, the rocks, and the ever-changing rhythms on a piece of land, you change too.

MY HUSBAND’S PARENTS, GRACE AND CHARLES MALONE, bought the ranch in the summer of 1996. They had been scouting land for several years after Charles, a lanky man with close-cropped white hair, blue-green eyes, and a crinkly smile, retired from his management job with a utility company. Originally they had wanted to buy land near Enchanted Rock, where they’ve had a deer lease for many years. But the Hill Country’s inflated prices drove them farther and farther north, until they ended up in a real estate agent’s office in Meridian.

Like many urbanites longing for a piece of the Texas dream, my husband, Dan Malone, who is also a writer, and I had been looking at land too—but not close to home. We coveted the wide-open spaces around Marathon and Fort Davis or in northern New Mexico. We wanted someplace rocky, rugged, untamed. So did Dan’s parents. The agent knew of exactly such a place: a small ranch in Bosque County between Glen Rose and Walnut Springs. No one had lived there for ten years, and it was rough, all right.

The native grasses stood thigh-high and brambles hung like drapery from the trees. Scrub oak and sumac had spread into the gravel roads, making them barely passable in places. Years of erosion had scoured away the gravel where the roads climbed hills, creating steep, rocky drop-offs. Only high-clearance vehicles could navigate the property. The place was crawling with ticks and snakes. The corral fence was rusted and the stock tanks were drying up. The only living space was a three-bedroom mobile home at the top of a high ridge. It was infested with mice, but it had a splendid view of Flat Top Mountain and the blue ridges beyond.

The land also had a permanent resident: Oscar Newkirk McCash II. He had lived there periodically until his death in 1985, and now his tall, white marble tombstone stands like a sentinel near the gate to the property. “As the dove flies over the horizon, he’s not gone, he’s just out of sight,” reads the inscription. McCash was only 48 when he died. Formerly a professional golfer, he was known to stand on the high ledge at the front of the trailer and knock balls into the western sky. We still find yellowed and rotting golf balls wedged between rocks or caught in a yucca’s spears.

Oscar is kind of a guardian spirit, and his grave is a silent reminder that life is short. Someday he might have some company in his peaceful spot among the redbud trees.

The ranch, which is long and only about a mile wide, sprawls across vastly different types of terrain. Some places are so dry and rocky that only cactus can grow. Other parts are dark, moist, and woodsy, where red mushrooms poke through the layers of leaves. The pastures hold two stock tanks and are planted with coastal bermuda grass; in the summer bluebells and antelope-horn milkweed pop up through the blades. A nearby rancher leases the pastures for his heifers, and we dream of grazing goats and burros there someday.

Because the property isn’t far from home, Dan and I can regularly load up our two big mutts, Pablo and Hadley, our Scottish terrier, Ernest, and our orange tabby, Rufus, and spend long weekends or even a week there. Grace and Charles and their Yorkshire terrier, Brandi, split their time between the ranch and a house in Cedar Hill, south of Dallas. They are building a permanent home on the high ridge, and Dan and I have moved the mobile home to another hill. I never thought I’d like spending so much time in a mobile home, but with front and back decks, new carpeting, new paint, and no mice, it is quite comfortable.

Already our bond with the land is strong. Some of that connection comes from sweat and hard work, but much of it comes from within. The ranch fulfills emotional needs in a way the city never could—a yearning to belong to a place, to feel optimism about the future, to enjoy simple pleasures, to find some meaning in each day. When Charles painted a square piece of sheet metal green, sprayed a black M in the center, and hung it on the ranch’s front gate, a feeling of pride and responsibility welled up inside us all. This land is part of the family. Someday Dan and I will be its caretakers. Suddenly the mythic power of land that I’d read about in novels like Giant became real, but on a smaller, more intimate scale.

Growing up in Texas, of course, means hearing a lot about land; it’s part of the Texas myth and of many Texans’ family history. It certainly is part of ours. Dan’s paternal grandparents, Ted and Rosa Malone, owned land around Frost that they farmed until the Great Depression wiped them out and they moved to Dallas. My maternal grandfather, Josephus Russell “J.R.” Smith, and his young wife, Lillie Mae, came to Texas from Georgia and Tennessee, respectively, in the early 1900’s. Like many settlers, they were lured by the talk—much of it grossly inflated—of abundant fertile land. They ended up in South Texas near Kingsville, a town with its own storied past tied to vast expanses of land. But when the railroad came through town, J.R. traded his dream of land for a steady job. He spent his life working for Missouri Pacific and bought a big white frame house in town. That was the land my grandparents had come so far to settle. But I always wanted more than what they got: a city lot and two cemetery plots.

LOOKING AT THE CEDAR-CHOKED HILLS, it’s hard to believe that Bosque County was once Indian territory, where the grass stood waist-high on the prairies (the Spanish had named the area’s river “Bosque,” which means “woods,” for its heavily wooded bottoms). Permanent settlers arrived in the 1850’s. Eventually, heavy farming and droughts took a toll on the land and weakened and eroded the soil, allowing cedar and cactus to creep onto the prairies. The county is still agrarian and sparsely populated, although people from Fort Worth and Dallas are starting to move there. The closest town to the ranch is Walnut Springs, three miles south on Texas Highway 144. A boom town in the 1880’s, when the Texas Central Railroad came through, Walnut Springs began a long decline in the twenties, when the railroad cut back its operations. The town has been trying to make a comeback and is now best known for its spring rattlesnake roundup, when dozens of buzzing vipers are dumped into a giant pit in a building on Main Street. “It sounds like a hundred deep fryers going,” Grace says.

We don’t need to go to town to see rattlesnakes, though. We’ve gotten to know our share of rattlers, copperheads, rat snakes, hognose snakes, and others at the ranch. I’ve never been fond of snakes. As a child I was once teasingly pushed toward the edge of a huge pit full of rattlesnakes at a South Texas roundup. I still have nightmares about that, but I’ve come to appreciate the reptiles’ role in the food chain and at least have gotten used to being around them.

Then again, some encounters have been too close. Take the snakes in the toilet. One day Charles and Grace were out on the back deck when they heard water running inside. Charles went to investigate. The sound came from one of the toilets. He lifted the lid to the tank.

“Grace,” he yelled. “Get the dog and go in the bedroom and close the door.”

“What’s going on, Charlie?”

“Just do it!”

Grace, a fair-haired, soft-spoken woman whose feminine demeanor belies a tough spirit, doesn’t normally take orders, but her husband’s tone told her he’d found something unusual. The next thing she heard was pow! pow! A snake was striking at Charles, and he didn’t know whether it was a water moccasin or what. So he grabbed his .22-caliber revolver, which was loaded with ratshot, and fired into the tank. He fished out a four-and-a-half-foot rat snake. But that wasn’t all. There was another snake. Best we can figure, they had somehow gotten into the septic tank and crawled through the pipes. I never go to the bathroom in the middle of the night anymore without turning on the lights first.

Then there was the night when, after dinner, we noticed something moving outside one of the windows facing the back deck. A rat snake had slithered up onto a table on the deck and was swaying like a peeping Tom in front of the window. (This one wasn’t killed but was quickly relocated.) And we thought we had to keep our blinds closed only in the city.

I could go on about the scorpion we found in our bed or the rattler that was coiled under the water faucet outside. Many of our city friends are horrified when they hear these stories—and they always seem to have a scheduling conflict when we invite them out for a weekend. But you never know what you’ll encounter in the country, and you can’t kill everything you don’t like. If we killed all the snakes we saw, the mice would take over again. Some predators, like coyotes, we never see, although we find plenty of their furry scat and hear their yip-yip-yip late at night. And we find the scattered, bleached bones of cows, turkeys, and other animals. A mountain lion was roaming the nearby ranches last year, killing calves. The local ranchers formed a posse to hunt it down, but they never found it; I secretly rooted for the cougar. Early this year a black cougar was spotted in the area, apparently feasting on the goats at the ranch next door, because Charles found a gnawed-off goat leg near the fenceline.

But most of the animals that inhabit the ranch—white-tailed deer, turkeys, cottontail rabbits, armadillos, raccoons, quail, and a gray fox we call Slinky—are creatures we like to encounter. We usually see them on morning walks or evening drives and have become adept at identifying their prints and scat, a skill I had never expected to develop.

Spending time on the ranch has driven home just how precious water is in Texas. The year the Malones bought the place it was so dry that hardly any wildflowers bloomed. We didn’t see deer that year either. But the next year, 1997, the ranch was a different place. Deer were abundant. Rain transformed the dry stock tanks into sloshing ponds, the pastures into lush grassland, and the meadows into Monet paintings with dabs of brilliant colors. This year has been the most spectacular so far. We were literally knee-deep in bluebonnets in the meadows. Then the cool palette of spring changed to a thick carpet of summer colors—yellow brown-eyed Susans and plains coreopsis, red Indian blanket, meadow pinks, spikes of purple horsemint.

I had never seen so many kinds of flowers, and I began documenting them as soon as we started spending time on the ranch. Grace and I have catalogued almost one hundred different flowers now. Some, like the showy blue-stars, bloom in only one spot on the ranch and for only a short time. Others, like the plains yellow daisies, are scattered all over and bloom almost year-round.

The rocks on the ranch tell a story too, one that goes back millennia. This land was once an ancient seabed, and the evidence is at our feet. Years of beachcombing on Padre Island, where I spent many summers as a child, had trained me to spot shells. On one of my first days exploring the ranch, something caught my eye. I picked up a cretaceous gastropod—a spirally coiled mollusk bigger than any I’d ever found at the beach—and rekindled a childhood passion years later and hundreds of miles inland. I’ve filled buckets with well-preserved clamshells as big as a fist; graceful spiraled, nautiluslike creatures called cephalopods; echinoids, which resemble small, puffy sand dollars; and yellow and red coral. When I go out for a walk on our ancient beach, I usually return with my pockets bulging. We’ve decorated the house with fossils as if they were fine pieces of sculpture.

In addition to our notions about snakes and mobile homes, our idea of entertainment has changed too. Instead of going out to dinner or renting a movie, which would require a trip to Glen Rose or Meridian and might mean we would miss a sunset, we hop into our 1965 Toyota Land Cruiser at dusk. Then we drive the ranch’s gravel roads, hoping to catch a glimpse of deer at the timed feeders scattered around the property. We sit on the front deck and aim our binoculars at the wild turkey gobblers in the northwest pasture fanning their tails and strutting for the females. We watch the western sky, which gives us jaw-dropping sunsets, bizarre cloudscapes, dazzling lightning shows, and terrifying thunderstorms that shake the mobile home like a baby’s rattle. I set up my easel and paint a split cedar that leans in an interesting way. We go fishing in the big stock tank. We’ve lined up four old metal lawn chairs on the rim so we can watch Texas TV at night—the sky jam-packed with stars.

COULD WE EVER ABANDON OUR CITY ways and live on the land? As we enter our forties, that’s a question Dan and I often ask ourselves—and one that other Texans who want to flee urban life likely have pondered too. I feel some ambivalence, even though I love this piece of land. Would I feel isolated? Would I miss my friends in the city? What if there was a medical emergency?

Because we are writers, we have some mobility. In a twist of irony, technology is what makes rural life even a possibility for us. Give us a cell phone, a laptop computer, a modem, and the Internet, and we can work just about anywhere. For better or worse, folks like us who want to live on the land, not off it, are beginning to spread into the countryside.

I wrote John Graves for some insight into the reverse migration of city dwellers to the country after reading about his piece of land in his book Hard Scrabble. Graves, who is now in his seventies, wrote back to say that some things have inevitably changed at his place in neighboring Somervell County. He has sold his little goat herd. He’s letting the cedar reblanket the land and is spending more time reading and enjoying the sunrises and sunsets than hammering and sawing and repairing fences. “Not that I would go back, if I could, and change any aspect of the whole arduous process of life and work here, even knowing that I might have gotten more done as a writer without the country compulsion,” he wrote. “I envy you and your husband, starting out on the same road.”

The answers to our questions will come in time, but the pull of land is strong. Going back to the city gets harder and harder each time we visit the ranch. We leave more of ourselves behind and feel increasingly disconnected from the city. In a flip from frontier days, country living now seems more civilized to us, and city life seems savage.

It’s hard to believe that a piece of land could touch so many places in a person, some buried long ago, some just surfacing. But it has. In getting to know this patch of Texas, it seems I’m also getting to know myself.

Kathryn Jones wrote about 7 UP’s new advertising campaign in the January 1999 issue of Texas Monthly.

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