The Petrified Forest

Both trees and the past surround life in deep East Texas, where lumber is king and the Civil War was yesterday.

Driving east to San Augustine, against the grain of the pioneers, I first met the Piney Woods of East Texas at Crockett. Abruptly, a forest curtain fell. Gone was the big Texas sky, the familiar flat, horizontal junction of earth and cloud, the sense of space that shaped the expansive character of the West. Green-and-brown vertical walls stretched along each side of Highway 7, the two-lane road that cuts through the Davy Crockett National Forest. Long bright shafts of light sifted through the dark trees like a chiaroscuro sketch. I drove past sleeping swamps covered with a baroque intertwining of roots, branches, and vines, past an occasional mobile home (the new log cabin) looking shrunken and frail against the surrounding forest. Fluffy cumulus clouds slowly drifting north from the Gulf were suspended behind tall pines like puffs of smoke from chimneys. When I looked up, I could see the same amount of sky as a New Yorker standing in midtown Manhattan.

For anyone not born in the forest, a love for deep East Texas is, like the craving for cane syrup, an acquired taste. There is a rich beauty in the sheer lushness of it, ferns poking from thatches of pine needles covering the red dirt floor of the forest, an infinity of trees marching like ghosts up and down the rolling hills. And there is also the beauty of the old timer’s familiarity with it, knowing the secret places, the clearings, and the swamps, the paths through the woods. But the spirit of these fairy-tale woods also contain mystery, loneliness, suspicion, magic, fear. Even neighbors are walled off from each other by thick woods, their houses suspended in solitude among the hickories and red oaks, pines, elms, chinquapins, chestnuts, swamp willows, and cypresses, all melded together by the universal and tangled underbrush. For Texans used to the open spaces of the west of the 98 th meridian, this world is vertical and claustrophobic, amputated not only from the rest of Texas, but also from neighbors half a mile away.

The people I met during two months of living in San Augustine were friendly, but the friendliness was not unqualified. There was an edge of suspicion and mistrust, a touch of fear, even of each other. Too many conversations ended with admonitions to beware, watch out, be cool. The history of all Texas is marked by violence, by long battles among Anglo settlers, Mexicans, blacks, and Indians. But here the memory of violence and the potential for it seem real and immediate, no matter how lazy the day or slow the pace.

Poor and isolated, deep East Texas carries the special burden of the South, the burden of conflict between black and white, rich and poor, passed down through generations. Beneath the crust of gentility of the well-to-do, the memories and “way of life” of the Deep South preserved as if in amber, lies the darker side: the black man’s special exile to grim shanties along back streets; the poor whites, in their own exile, huddled in the backwoods, blending a harsh Pentecostalism with the peckerwood (Southern dialect for poor white) crimes of moonshining, poaching, cockfighting, and incest. The TV antennas on the shanties and the cabins are merely a cosmetic twentieth-century intrusion: in San Augustine the nineteenth century is very much alive.

Most East Texans will wax eloquent on how much they love the land, but for a century they have done little but abuse it. Millions of acres of East Texas have been leached out and cut over, first by cotton plantations, then by the timber companies, and always by the poor, who scratch it to survive. The land has been attacked with a vengeance, either for one’s own immediate subsistence of from someone else’s profit. There is a love for the country in East Texas—the love of hunting on it, of running dogs over it, of treeing coons, of cane-pole fishing, of its variety of plants and animals—but that love fades quickly when it comes to cutting down the forests for timber or flooding them with huge lakes to raise the price of land. Love, it seems, does not go so far as practicality.

For most of the people in San Augustine County, love of the land is a luxury they simply cannot afford. Apart form the small circle of the wealthy and upper middle class, the county is desperately poor. Its per capita income is $2562 a year, about two-thirds that of the rest of Texas, which is more than $4200. More than 40 per cent of the people are poor, compared to less than 20 per cent statewide. The infant mortality rate is 49.2 per 1000 births, compared to 20 in Texas and 19.2 across the United States. One in five homes has inadequate or no plumbing. Almost half the adult population has never been to high school. The town of San Augustine is economically stagnant. In 1950 its population was 2510; today it is 2599.

The county’s outstanding virtue seems to be endurance. Obstinacy is all, and to survive despite virulent prejudices and a brutal economic system that leaves most poor whites and blacks physically and spiritually drawn and quartered is a full day’s work.

It was not always so. The Spanish settled San Augustine in 1717 as the eastern link on the chain of Texas missions, which also included the Alamo and Goliad. For a hundred years San Augustine was the main border town, first between New Spain and the French-held Louisiana territory, then between the United States and Mexico. In the early days of the Texas Republic, San Augustine, Galveston, and Matagorda were the primary ports of entry for new settlers coming to Texas. Down the Old San Antonio Road came settlers and preachers, thieves, and murderers, heroes and brigands, soldiers and adventures, all funneling through San Augustine, fifteen miles west of the Sabine. Toward Natchitoches, Louisiana, just to the east, was a no-man’s-land, a vast belt ruled by smugglers and fugitives.

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