For the past 25 years, Benny Taylor, a rail-thin 55-year-old West Texas cotton farmer, has documented the natural world’s patterns and omens. He can tell you that the area’s rattlesnakes usually slither out into the sunlight at the beginning of spring and that he saw his first rattlesnake of 2015 on March 10, twelve days earlier than he had ever before. He can tell you that farmers have long known that a blooming mesquite means that the last freeze has passed and that now, thanks to a changing climate, a blooming mesquite may no longer be trustworthy. He can tell you that from 2005 to 2009 his farm received an average of 20.93 inches of rain annually while producing 341.7 pounds of cotton per acre, the most robust haul of his career. And he can tell you that over the past five years, which were largely marred by drought, he has produced less than half of that. Taylor hasn’t figured out how all this information might actually help him, but he collects it just the same. He’s confident that it holds answers. “There’s something more than we know,” he says, “and I’m going to be forever searching for it.”
Early on the morning of March 20, Taylor was busy continuing that search. An hour before sunrise he huddled with his friend Cade Furlow, their wives, and Furlow’s parents on a stretch of the 1,450-acre Furlow cattle ranch near Gail, about an hour and a half southeast of Lubbock. As the group stood in the predawn darkness, the wind lashed their cheeks, and they inched closer together, making a tight circle around a campfire. To the west, flashing red lights marked the wind turbines that were capturing those West Texas gusts and sending power to Austin and San Antonio.
The Taylors and Furlows were preparing to measure the direction of the wind and use it to forecast the future, their own homespun version of a South Plains ceremony that, according to legend, has roots in an age-old Comanche rite. Every year, the story goes, on the morning after a sundial revealed the arrival of the vernal equinox, tribal leaders would light a predawn fire and observe which way the wind blew the smoke at the precise moment of sunrise. If the wind came out of the northeast, the community could rejoice—it signaled a year of favorable weather and good health. If the wind blew from the northwest, the tribe would temper its expectations—the year would be merely average. A southwesterly wind augured a below-average year. A southeasterly wind meant that a truly bad year was in store.
The agricultural industry long ago traded in such Farmers’ Almanac–style folk wisdom for the data of the National Weather Service, but many growers still put stock in the old ways. The area around Lubbock is among the densest cotton patches in the world, and the prosperity of most residents depends on nature’s goodwill. The precariousness of this arrangement pushes even the most God-fearing South Plains residents to look for mystical signs.
As Taylor waited for the appointed hour, he smoked Marlboros and scrolled through an iPhone app charting the moon’s phases. During the drought years, the winds had always blown from the portentous south. “It wasn’t hard to figure,” Taylor said. “Someone from California could have judged it.” But this year was looking better. The wind was coming from the north,and the air was thick with moisture.
“Do your thing, Chief,” Furlow’s dad, Bobby, a Stetson-wearing rancher and farmer, called out to Taylor as the clock hit 7:51.
“Here’s to a great year!” Taylor said as he threw a shock of tobosa grass into the fire. It ignited into a cloud of smoke that wafted off to the southwest. The wind was blowing from the northeast, the best possible outcome. “I’m going straight to the bank,” Cade Furlow quipped.
Soon the group was passing around a bottle of Texas Crown Club Whisky. But Taylor wasn’t ready to declare victory. Two days later, another group would perform a more official version of the ceremony in the nearby city of Post, and Taylor was eager to see its results. “We watch the wind and it gets us all fired up,” he’d said a few hours earlier. “But let’s see what the Indian says.”
“The Indian” is 66-year-old Ken LeBlanc, a student of Comanche, Sioux, and Mescalero Apache culture who, in fact, has no Native American blood at all. For thirteen years, LeBlanc has presided over Post’s version of the equinox ceremony, which is known as Taba’na Yuan’e. The precise origins of Taba’na Yuan’e are murky, but reports place the initial date as 1906, when, it is said, an area settler named J. I. Wilbourn learned of the rite from an elderly Comanche. On March 22 of that year, Wilbourn ascended to the top of the nearby Caprock Escarpment, measured the direction of the wind at sunrise, and came away with a prediction about the months to come. Over the next 67 years, responsibility for the ceremony passed from Wilbourn to a Post banker named W. O. Stevens to a Lubbock judge named Clark Mullican to a Post auto-parts dealer named Noah Stone.
In 1973 the local chamber of commerce, eager to turn the ceremony into a tourist-friendly spectacle, asked Frank Runkles, the longtime ranger of the Post Boy Scout camp, to take it over and create a more authentically Native American version. Runkles designed an event that mixed elements of Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, Sioux, and various Pueblo customs. He called it Taba’na Yuan’e, the Comanche words for “sunrise wind,” and offered the chamber a bouquet of ceremonial options that, he wrote, could “fill a time period from about ten minutes up to about thirty minutes, whatever seemed advisable considering the news media, or others who may be present.”
Runkles—who performed the ceremony dressed in buckskins, beadwork, and an elaborate headdress—was an instant hit, and soon stories about a kind of West Texas Groundhog Day were being reported not only in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal but on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal.
That Runkles whiffed on his prediction the very first year—the winds showed that 1973 would be an average year, when, in fact, it yielded a bumper crop—mattered little. Over the 29 years that Runkles performed the ceremony, his accuracy rate was reported as 92 percent, though this was, perhaps, more a declaration of faith than a precise accounting of crop yields.
Judging the predictive power of the ceremony has always been highly subjective. Last year, LeBlanc, who began leading the ceremony after Runkles’s death, in 2002, found that the wind was blowing out of the northeast, indicating a very good year. It’s true that the area around Post received more rainfall than usual. But the majority of that rain came late in the season, flooding fields and diminishing the quality of the crop. When farmers tried to sell their subpar product, they couldn’t get break-even prices, since the market was inundated with China’s and India’s massive stockpiles. It was a wet year, but was it a good one?
When I met LeBlanc and his wife, Shirley, I asked them what the Taba’na Yuan’e ritual was supposed to measure. After all, its origins were as much apocryphal as historical, and the ceremony wasn’t recognized by any Native American tribe. Did it predict general economic prosperity? The year’s precipitation? Crop yields? LeBlanc waved off the notion that it could be reduced to such concrete terms. “The weather in this area is important,” he said. “But if you were to talk to a Native American, they’d say that that ceremony is about doing well in whatever endeavor you’re going to do.”
“And what area does it cover?” I asked.
“No one knows,” he said. “It may be Garza County, it may be the United States.”
“It’s wherever people want to believe it,” Shirley added.
The morning before the ceremony, LeBlanc; Shirley, who has Comanche roots; and their friend Zoe Kirkpatrick, who is part Creek, were sitting in the LeBlancs’ house in downtown Post. Framed arrowhead displays, Navajo wedding baskets, and an awl made from the femur of a deer hung on the walls. Books on Comanche and Sioux history filled the living room shelves.
LeBlanc said that he sees himself as perhaps the last of the line. Like Runkles, he had served as the local Boy Scout camp’s ranger, and in 1986 he joined the Taba’na Yuan’e as fire-tender. Over the past three decades, he has seen interest in the ceremony wane. In Runkles’s heyday, Post’s chamber of commerce would arrange for a buffet breakfast and television coverage. Now there isn’t so much as a free cup of coffee.
“My fear is that this may die with this group,” LeBlanc said, nodding to Shirley, who is 67, and Kirkpatrick, who is 80. “None of my kids do this stuff. Unless you have that little twinkle of mysticism in you, it’s tough.”
The next morning, fifty people, including more than a few cotton farmers, gathered on the damp grass of Post City Park. The Taylors and the Furlows were among them, hoping for confirmation of the happy results of their small ceremony two days earlier.
Like LeBlanc, Taylor sees himself as part of a dying tradition. The weather has been increasingly hostile for farmers, global cotton supply has outstripped demand, and the 2014 Farm Bill removed direct-cash subsidies for cotton growers. Russel Barnett, the manager of the local Gar Lyn Co-op Cotton Gin, told me that most of his farmer clients are over sixty years old, and Taylor was not surprised when his own son, Blaze, opted for two tours in Iraq and law school instead of pursuing his father’s profession.
Unlike his son, Taylor is stuck with cotton. Even in non-drought years, the West Texas climate is too arid to grow most other staple crops, such as soybeans and corn. But Taylor hasn’t lost hope, and with bad news coming from Mother Nature and the U.S. Congress, he said he’d be turning to the wisdom of the Indian a little more.
At 7:20 a.m. Taylor looked on as the Taba’na Yuan’e ceremony commenced with the throbbing beat of drums. Soon a tepee-shaped fire was burning, and LeBlanc, clad in Native American garb, was offering a ceremonial pipe to Father Sky, Mother Earth, and the spirits of the North, East, South, and West. After he stepped aside, Shirley, Zoe, and several other women twirled around the ceremonial circle, performing the “four winds princess dance.” William Blackhorse, a 25-year-old member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, followed, bellowing out a blessing in the Lakota language. When the sun peeked up from the horizon, LeBlanc threw a bundle of sage and grass into the fire. The smoke drifted south, and LeBlanc pointed a feather dramatically in the wind’s direction. It was coming from the northwest, indicating an average year.
Taylor was undeterred. That afternoon, he and Furlow returned to the same spot where they’d measured the wind two days earlier. They had no ceremony to conduct, but they charted the natural world all the same. On a sundial made from a propane-tank cap, they marked off the zenith. And as the sun’s shadows began to grow longer, the men marveled at the tilt of the earth, and the path of the moon and the stars, and the fact that even there, on some scraggly West Texas ranchland, they could behold the movements of the cosmos. The sun was shining brightly, the Dos Equis was plenty cold, and the wind was still blowing from the north. The Taba’na Yuan’e ceremony’s results were open to interpretation, after all, and Taylor was feeling great. He knew that it would be a good year.