“The Rivers of Texas” is an old cowboy song that mentions fourteen rivers in the Lone Star state; Lyle Lovett recorded his version – The Texas River Song – on the album Step Inside This House. My good friend Bill tells me Townes Van Zandt also recorded this classic. This excerpt of lyrics comes courtesy of Verne Huser’s book Rivers of Texas:
“We crossed the broad Pecos and we crossed the Nueces, Swam the Guadalupe and followed the Brazos; Red River runs rusty; the Wichita clear. Down by the Brazos I courted my dear…The sweet Angelina runs glossy and glidey; The crooked Colorado flows weaving and winding. The slow San Antonio courses the plain. I will never walk by the Brazos again.”
Nomadic by circumstance, or maybe I just like driving, I am on the road again, speeding northward into the oncoming night from San Antonio towards Austin and Waco. I laugh out loud recalling an essay in High Country News by John Daniel; in A Word In Favor of Rootlessness he wrote “marriage to place is something we all need to realize in our culture, but not all of us are the marrying kind…it makes me very happy to drive the highways and back roads of the American West, exchanging talk with people who live where I don’t, pulling off somewhere to sleep in the truck and wake to a place I’ve never seen.” Out my side window, I search for the “Old Yellow Moon,” Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell croon about on my CD player. Running north – south, I-35 intersects a series of rivers crisscrossing Texas roughly north-west to south-east; I catalog them in my mind: San Antonio, Guadalupe, Colorado and as I get closer to my destination the tributaries to the Brazos including the Leon, San Gabriel and Little Rivers and of course Salado Creek.
This year, Texas like many places in the Western and Midwest United States is suffering from drought. Not enough rain is falling to soak into and heal the land, fill the reservoirs and aquifers and bless the riparian areas providing a respite to migratory birds and a home for wildlife along the streambeds. At the same time the demand for the life-giving water grows for agriculture, industry, and the expanding suburbs. In the thirty-some odd years I’ve been coming to Central Texas the population keeps increasing; more houses, more malls and with this expansion the burgeoning need for water. But this is not a new story. In San Antonio, I travelled parts of the San Antonio River Walk heading south to the Historic Missions National Park. Built in the early 18th century, close to rivers, the mission communities constructed dams and aqueducts to guide water for irrigating crops and powering flourmills. The Belton Lake Dam on the Leon River is a 20th century version of the mission acequias; Belton just provides a lot more water for a lot more people. The grandfather of Texas conservation, John Graves, wrote a book Goodbye to A River, published in 1959, now considered a classic about his late 1950s canoe trip down the Brazos River. The book is often cited as a major reason only a limited number of dams were built on the Brazos. The current drought places a strain on stored water supplies. But what can we do to make sure that there is enough water for all those who need it, including the native plants and animals? In the 13th Century, it is believed the Anazasi left the Colorado Plateau for the Rio Grande valley of New Mexico when extreme drought caused these peoples to abandon their homes. Where could we go?
Nomad that I appear to be, place and community do obsess me. Wherever I land, I want to understand the context of the place – the land and its people. I do not feel geographic detachment, but I realize this ability to move quickly from place to place comes at an expense. In Teaching About Place Hal Crimmel published the article “Teaching About Place in an Era of Geographical Detachment.” Crimmel states “technology enables escape from any particular locale, accelerating the process of geographical detachment. In fact, living in place may have more to do with restraint than passion these days. Unprecedented access to distant energy sources, such as natural gas piped across the continent, and to mechanical or electrical technologies means people need not live within the ecological limits imposed by climate and topography.” I feel the contradiction deep in my bones; I hope my Prius buys me some credit when my judgement comes.