Forgotten Places

Where something of the original Texas still survives.

“In the beginning,” writes Texan historian T. R. Fehrenbach, “in the beginning, before any people, was the land: an immense region 265,000 square miles in area rising out of the warm muck of the green Gulf of Mexico, running for countless leagues of rich coastal prairies, forests, and savannahs; reaching out hugely 770 miles from boundary to boundary south to north and east to west, to enclose a series of magnificent, rising limestone plateaus, ending in the thin, hot air of blue-shadowed mountains.”

Newcomers we are, intruders on a wilderness with purposes of our own: varied purposes that have until quite lately not included the determination to preserve some islands of wildness among the workshops we have constructed to hammer out our dreams. Unique among the states, Texas chose and was permitted to keep its public lands upon admission to the union; 170 million acres were thus withheld from federal supervision and distributed indiscriminately for the balance of the century. Much of the modern history of Texas is the story of the fortunes that were built and broken through speculation in those lands. Less has been said about the consequences of their loss.

One consequence is that Texas is dismayingly poor in public recreational land and wilderness preserves. Federal lands in other states, especially in the West, have done much to fill the need for open space demanded by crowded city dwellers as outlets for their growing leisure. Except for two important but remote national parks in far West Texas, Padre Island National Seashore, and a few national forests in the East, the state is devoid of federal land that can now be used for this purpose. Most Texans must choose between private lands and scrawny state parks, and for all but a handful who have access to some property of their own, there is actually no choice at all. The need for wilderness and recreational land has become acute, even if it could not have been foreseen by the nineteenth-century politicians to whom the Texas earth surface seemed an inexhaustible resource.

Many significant natural sites still in private hands have never been adequately studied and classified; scientifically speaking, they remain unexplored territory. At the instigation of former State Senator Don Kennard—a canoeist, raconteur, and lover of the wilderness—the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin set about last year to rectify this situation. Establishing the Natural Areas Survey Project with Kennard himself as director, the School assembled a team of botanists, zoologists, geologists, and anthropolgists to examine four sites that ranged, quite literally, from the warm muck of the Gulf to several of the tallest blue-shadowed mountains in the state: Matagorda Island on the coast northeast of Corpus Christi, the Davis Mountains of West Texas, Victorio Canyon near Van Horn, and Capote Falls—a place so isolated that the nearest city (the remote settlement of Presidio) is nearly two hours’ drive away. Another team will consider five more sites this summer.

The four sites included in the first project are among the most memorable works of nature in the state. Each has long ago been disturbed to the point where it can no longer be called wilderness, but none has yet been blighted beyond recovery. They are wild places still.

In wildness, we are told, is the preservation of the world. To visit them is to know that is so.

VICTORIO

One cold dawn in January 1881, Texas Rangers attacked a small Apache camp in the Sierra Diablo twenty miles northwest of Van Horn. The Rangers saw the camp as merely the most recent base for Indian raids by followers of the Mescalero military genius Victorio, whose depredations in the region had reached their greatest intensity in late summer and fall of the previous year. History records it instead as the site of the last Indian battle in Texas—a trivial episode in itself, but marking the fateful moment when the white man took unchallenged dominion over the Lone Star State’s contested western lands.

The Indian survivors fled southward with their wounded, pursued by a party of Rangers. Today the quiet arroyo conjures images of Rangers, washed and rested, waiting impatiently for their fellow officers to return, wandering away from the corpse-strewn field across the desolate Diablo Plain to a slight, rocky rise, there to stand in numbed astonishment at the spectacular scene suddenly spread out below: a canyon 2000 feet deep and five miles long. The majestic power of Victorio Canyon is heightened by the improbability that such a natural drama could be played out silently, without warning, in the midst of featureless desert that gives no hint of what lies beyond. The impact of seeing Victorio for the first time comes from realizing that one has failed to take a true measure of the land. There is an unsettling awareness that eyes can grow lazy with flatlands’ predictable dimensions and monotonous probabilities, leaving one unprepared for canyons sliced through multicolored rock and successions of windworked statuary looming on steep walls like faceless apostles around some weathered Royal Portal. If the Rangers did not see it, it is their loss: the land is worthy of the moment.

Though in area relatively small, Victorio Canyon and Peak are stunning examples of Basin and Range physiography. The rugged Sierra Diablo typifies the limestone bank reefs that ring the Delaware Basin. Its prominent kin is the towering El Capitan Reef in Guadalupe Mountains National Park to the north. The mysterious narrow side canyons resulted from uplift, intense fracturing, and desert erosion. Eastward beyond the canyon mouth a bleached Salt Basin shimmers through turbulent air. An ever-present wind intensifies the immense solitude and grandeur.

Botanically the area contains climax grama and tobosagrasses with isolated stands of pinyon pine, juniper, and small-leaf oak. Eleven rare and endangered species of plants have been identified in the vicinity, and a shaded fork of Little Victorio Canyon narrows above 5000 feet to a moist, fertile oasis where ferns, oaks, fragrant ash,

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