The Soul of East Texas

A land of tall trees and deep roots, where the past still haunts the present.

Photography by Keith Carter. 1990 National Magazine Award Winner for Photography.

My ears are attuned to the voices of East Texas even though I’ve lived in the city for twenty years. “I oughta whup the tar outta you,” I hear a mother tell her son as I finger the Jacksonvile tomatoes at the farmers’ market. I linger around the okra, hungrier for the expressions of my childhood than for the produce.

In a doctor’s office a man from East Texas tells me about his heart surgery: “Last year I was sick to where I couldn’t hardly get out of bed.” He is clearly enjoying the attention that his failing heart has attracted from important city doctors. “I was brought up hard,” he explains.

The black woman shampooing my hair summarizes her sister’s life and recent death in one confident sentence: “She did what the Lord gave her to do.” I scribble the sentence in the margin of a magazine, tear off the scrap of paper, and put it in my purse.

Perhaps I am making up for the inattentiveness of childhood. With no other frame of reference, I, like most children, regarded the landscape of my childhood as ordinary. In 1956 my sixth-grade class celebrated the end of elementary school with a trip to Dallas, where we took in such extraordinary sights as Cinerama; the Health and Science Museum at Fair Park, with its shocking plaster representations of a baby being born; and finally Love Field airport, where I snapped a picture of Ed Sullivan rushing to his flight. That was the interesting world. Today I would bypass the celebrity and take more notice of my classmates, some of whom had had the tar whupped out of ‘em, were being brought up hard, and might eventually do all that the Lord gave them to do.

I was born two blocks inside the Texas state line in Texarkana. Keith Carter’s photographs of East Texas that appear on these pages were not taken near my hometown, nor were they taken 35 years ago, when I was a little girl beginning to sort out my surroundings. Yet these contemporary photographs, all taken between Lakes O’ The Pines and the Trinity River, conjure for me a rich overlay of memory—my own images of trees, family, pretentious dogs, religion, poverty, lapsed grandeur alongside enduring dignity.

Like all Texas schoolchildren, I spent the seventh grade studying Texas history and geography. I can sing “Texas, Our Texas,” and I once performed a modern-dance routine to “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” Sitting on the public-library steps, waiting for my mother to pick me up, I gradually memorized one side of the inscription on Jim Bowie’s statue: “Dreams of fabulous wealth brought Bowie to the San Saba region where he met with unexpected Indian attack…” I was even a delegate to Bluebonnet Girls State in 1961. My first writing effort appeared in the Texas Junior Historian magazine. Despite all those credentials, when I left the shadowy Piney Woods for the liquid blue skies and glaring limestone of Austin, I gradually realized much of what I had grown up believing was Texan was really Southern. The cherished myth of Texas had little to do with my part of the state. I knew dogwood, chinaberry, crape myrtle, and mimosa, but no bluebonnets or Indian paintbrush. Although the Four States Fair and Rodeo was held in my town, I never really learned to ride a horse. I never knew anyone who wore cowboy hats or boots as anything other than a costume. I knew farmers whose fences were bois d’arc and “bob wire” and whose property was known as Old Man So-and-so’s place, not ranchers with their cattle brands arched over entrance gates. I knew ponds, not tanks. Streets in my town were called Wood, Pine, Olive, and Boulevard, not Guadalupe and Lavaca. Mexico was so remote that we called it Old Mexico. I knew people and a lot of things in only two colors—black and white. In Austin I quickly discovered that women who had grown up with less shade and more sky seemed less constrained than I was by the Southern dictum “What will people think?”

It did not occur to me until I read William Humphrey’s 1964 novel, The Ordways, that my forebears in East Texas were the less adventurous of the Texas pioneers. Humphrey describes them this way: “Mountain men, woodsmen, swampers, hill farmers, they came out into the light, stood blinking at the flat and featureless immensity spread before them, where there were no logs to build cabins or churches, no rails for fences, none of the game whose ways they knew, and cowered back into the familiar shade of the forest, from there to farm the margins of the prairie like a timid bather testing the water with his toe.”

Cowering back into the familiar shade? Timid bathers? Could I still boast of being a fifth-generation Texan if my great-great-grandfather Samuel Corley had eschewed the vast and lonely Texas prairies to ride a Presbyterian circuit from San Augustine to the Red River? On the other hand, if the Corleys had charged on westward, their horses might have given out in Fort Stockton. I might have learned to sit a horse, but I would have missed the trees, the sandy-bottomed swimming holes, the hiding places, and the mystery indigenous to East Texas.

Historians have suggested that the trees in East Texas blocked our vision and walled us off from the outside world. From a child’s perspective, trees were simply an integral part of our games. How could a kid in Fort Stockton play a serious game of Tarzan or Swiss Family Robinson or even hide-and-seek without thick trunks, vines, and pine-needle carpeting? My mud pies were baked with mulberries or wild cherries. Chinaberries were ammunition. The partially exposed roots of an old oak tree could provide shelter for dolls or trolls or small plastic Indians. Magnolia trees offered totally enclosed play spaces, sturdy climbing limbs for even the smallest children, and cones with

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