The Earth Below
When you turn away from the majestic skies of West Texas, you discover there’s another world beneath your feet.
I commence a walk one morning this fall, among the last warm days of the year. Thin, ribbed clouds overhead. Intermittent sunshine. Breezy. Our little place in Marfa is twenty flat acres on the northeast edge of town. To the west is our neighbor’s horse trap, with its low hill and two mares that rub their itchy hips against our shared fence. To the north is an unobstructed view of the Davis Mountains, to the south is a dry creek, and to the east is the same neighbor’s cow pasture. Recently he weaned his calves from their mothers and trucked the young animals away. For three nights running the mothers stood at the gate and lowed pitifully for their children until, finally, their longing eased or resignation overtook them, and together they drifted back to their vast grassland.
We spend considerable time looking at the sky here, or looking at the creatures that inhabit the place. Every day: mountains, sky, animals. The luxury of that vista and our proximity to such beauty represent some of the greatest riches of our lives. It’s hard to look down, given all that’s going on out there. But I decide to ignore the grandeur one morning to consider the working-class state of the ground itself, the busyness and the mystery of what happens at my feet.
To walk the perimeter of our place is to walk exactly one mile. The previous owner had allowed her animals to graze until the earth was bare; for the past four years, since we took over, we’ve kept our horses and donkeys off the main acreage for all but a few weeks per year. With rest and precipitation, the land has rebounded. This is the inventory, incomplete and faulted, of that patch of desert grassland.
A few steps into the north pasture lies the broad, arrowhead-shaped leaves of a buffalo gourd, sometimes called stink squash for its unpleasant, dirty-socks smell. The fruit is fist-size and looks appealingly similar to a watermelon when it’s young, green, and striped. It’s a known laxative, though, and potentially toxic. You’ve been warned. Also on the ground: a bushy clump of horehound; stray wisps of old hay from the nearby barn; a few black-and-white feathers shed from a molting barred rock hen. Our dark-red filly arrives to investigate my presence in the pasture and noses the blue grama grass at my feet. She lifts her head and stares toward the neighbor’s mares. Her winter coat has come in. Tiny yellow burrs and grass seeds ride the long hairs below her jaw.
We have tumbleweeds in abundance, the color of toast but not nearly so nice. Tumbleweeds are thorny up close, and thousands of seeds lace each plant; when the wind comes and they start tumbling, they’ll loose those seeds for miles and propagate their spiny kin with abandon. Their proper name is Russian thistle. I blame Putin.
Near the fence is a group of soaptree yuccas. One trunk is crowned with a burst of long, spiky green leaves. Three others lie toppled, dead, but their tangle of leaves and woody plant bases provide cover for blue quail. The coveys are still here. A sentinel quail alerts to the danger I pose, calling, “Kirk kerr! Kirk kerr!”
A mile away, the train blows its horn as it leaves town. An insect somewhere close drones a syncopated A-flat, like a speeded-up busy signal. Ahead is a harvester ant mound, the hole to the colony’s subterranean palace protected by a pebbled grand entry devoid of vegetation and four feet across. So many ants have traveled around this mound that they’ve worn distinct pathways into the soil. The resident ants are hunkered at the entrance, glittering like garnets in the sun. Several dung beetles are nearby, generally appearing to be on their way someplace. A jackrabbit hiding under an allthorn pins his ears and freezes at my approach, then rockets away in a high lope. Bright-orange ants pack hay-colored seed hulls out of their mound and arrange them in a circle surrounding their home. Another circle, this time a pile of soft gray feathers, is what’s left of a dove likely felled by the northern harrier who makes low patrols over the field every day. The blue quail squalls again: “Kirk kerr! Kirk kerr!”
On this side of the pasture, at the toe of the neighbor’s hill, there are sometimes rocks on the ground. A heavy white stone shot with gray veins that looks like granite and feels soapy. Small volcanic rocks, black and pocked with holes. Little dark stones, little gray stones.
Pronghorn regularly traverse this land, and although none are hanging out in the pasture this morning, sulfur butterflies alight upon the scat they’ve left behind. The pronghorn are responsible for the trails that crisscross the field, their heart-shaped hoofprints pressed into the dust. Pronghorn like to go under fences instead of over them, and several trails lead under our fence and into the pastures next door. A flattened circle ten feet from one of these underpasses shows where the pronghorn bedded in the thicket of tall grass.
It’s late fall, and yet a few wildflowers persist: purple asters, daisy fleabanes, a kind of honeysuckle-looking pink bloom whose perfume rises intensely in the day’s warmth. The grass, drying out these days, rustles. The blond, curled seed heads of blue grama nod in the wind. Cane bluestem stands hip-high; rub its seed fluff between your hands and take a whiff—the scent is powerfully blueberry. Try it.
Alas, patches of bare earth remain, and the soil is prone to blowing away unless something covers it. To find how to best steward what we’ve got, I call in experts, four Natural Resources Conservation Service scientists who arrive to look at the place armed with an auger and a battered laptop. Based in Marfa, the team covers 23 million acres of West Texas and part of New Mexico, identifying soil, mapping it, and educating landowners and the public about soil-related matters. And soil does matter, they say.
“Here in West Texas, there’s an interesting puzzle anywhere you look,” says team leader Lynn Loomis. “Soil is basic to our food supply. The cotton in your clothes, the leather for your shoes, the adobes in your house all come from the soil. People take it for granted. With more and more people and demand on our resources, we need to learn what soil can and cannot do.”
While team members Chance Robinson and David Jalali punch a hole in the earth with the auger, their colleague Will Juett wanders the field, rattling off an inventory of the grasses, brush, and forbs, which Loomis types into the laptop.
Sideoats grama. Bermuda. Spider threeawn. Mare’s tail. Prickly poppy. Mexican hat. Frostweed. Globe mallow. Six-weeks grama. Sleeping plant. Clover.
The augered hole gets deeper. Robinson and Jalali stop periodically to record and examine aspects of the layers, or horizons, of earth they encounter, holding up a clod (to the scientists, a “ped”) and describing its color, the shape of its structure, and whether it contains the small, sparkly flecks called films that indicate certain qualities of the clay. Loomis enters the data. The clay is important, for it holds moisture in the ground and allows plant life to flourish even when rainfall is scant. The men work handfuls of dampened soil in their fists to assess the clay content. Along with decomposed animals and plants, water, gases, wee organisms, and air, this soil contains evidence of minerals whose origins go back 30 million years.
Loomis nods toward the mountains, then to the mud pie in his hand. “Over in the Davis Mountains you have the twenty-seventh- and twenty-eighth-most-violent eruptions in the history of the planet. Chinati Peak’s eruption is number twenty-one on that list. What we’re handling is volcanic ash that came from Chinati,” he says.
The soil scientists have ideas for us: the planting of more native species, careful grazing, and perhaps some ripping with a tractor to get water into the ground. That won’t be so tough, but suddenly it seems like a lot to take in. The ground shows a series of cracks where the earth has swelled and shrunk; a circle of hardpan where the donkeys roll; the delicate leg bones and ears of a long-dead jackrabbit; a rusty fencing nail. The humps of earth that mark two graves in this pasture are smaller than they were a year ago. Time is passing. There are horizons above ground and horizons below, mountains and grass and bones. There is evidence that we were here, or not. There is so much to never know.