Richard and I are sitting in a tiny coffeehouse attached to what is surely the hippest laundromat in the world in Marfa, Texas, a small town that rises out of the West Texas plains like a mirage and disappears just as quickly if you drive through without stopping. Like most places though, there’s a lot to it if you stop and look. Marfa is a curious combination of dusty west Texas former ranching town built on a tidy rectangular street grid and bisected by a railroad that still carries trains, plus a former munitions depot from World War II since renovated to house minimalist sculpture by some famous names who were the darlings of the New York art world, plus the famous Marfa Lights, eerie lights that appear and disappear in the desert plains south of town on their own mysterious schedule.
This place is a world away from Austin, which we left in the rear-view mirror yesterday as the sun rose. No traffic, no spreading live oaks undergrown by a riot of greenery, no high-tech industry, no blue-green rivers coursing out of limestone hills. It does have sky, stars, open space, charming old houses, a cool old hotel, an elaborate courthouse visible from miles away, and some fabulous art. And great coffee, scones, and ice cream in Frama, the coffeehouse alcove attached to the Tumbleweed Laundromat.
Our last few days in Austin included a drive out to the northern edge of the Hill Country to have brunch with mystery authors extraordinaire Susan and Bill Albert at Meadow Knoll, their lovingly restored patch of limestone ledge and oak savanna; a breakfast with Susan A and Theresa May, Editor-in-Chief at University of Texas Press, surely the smartest, funniest, and most creative editor I’ve ever worked with (that’s our trio below: Susan Albert, Theresa May, and me); and appearances at the Texas Book Festival with Susan A on Sunday followed by a wonderfully attentive audience for the final “Two Susans” conversation on writing about place, sponsored by Story Circle Network on Monday night.
Richard and I left Austin Tuesday morning as the sun was rising in order to get across the city before the rush hour traffic got crazy. As we drove south toward San Antonio and then west across the southern part of the Hill Country, I pondered travel and what I learn from seeing new landscapes and meeting new people. What came to mind was the quote Richard and I saw at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin:
My special cause, the one that alerts my interest and quickens the pace of my life is to preserve the wildflowers and native plants that define the regions of our land–to encourage and promote their use in appropriate areas, and thus help pass on to generations in waiting the quiet joys and satisfactions I have known since childhood.
That’s Lady Bird Johnson, talking about why she founded the Wildflower Center. The part that sticks in my mind is her fidelity to plants “that define the regions of our land”–she recognized that uniqueness of place is due in part to the uniqueness of the native inhabitants, human and more so. And she also recognized and wanted to pass on “the quiet joys and satisfactions” of knowing and celebrating one’s place through the native plants and wildflowers. Lady Bird’s rural Texas childhood gave her the joy of being rooted, and her years in the peripatetic world of politics taught her the value of being placed, of knowing the other species that shape the landscapes where we live, and the pain of being displaced.
As we drove west on a two-lane highway through woodlands of spreading live oaks and bushy junipers, crossing the rivers colored blue-green by their limestone beds, I thought about how our tumbleweed culture can re-learn the joy and skill of being rooted, wherever we find ourselves. How many of us know even ten of the native species where we live, or can name the river that drains the spot we stand on, or the people who lived here before us; how many of us can pick out the constellations in the night sky over where we live?
One person who can is the poet David Lee, and after years of gaining accolades and readers by writing poignantly wry and insightful narrative poetry in the voices of rural folk, poetry that had him compared to Mark Twain and brought him a nomination for the post of Poet Laureate of the US, he’s now writing closer his heart, penning elegies to the landscapes he loves, including his latest, So Quietly the Earth, on the slickrock landscapes of Utah.
We stopped to visit Dave and his partner Jan at their place sheltered by oak trees above Bandera Creek. We talked about poetry and our kids and how to protect live oaks from oak wilt and how much rain they’ve received and Texas history and publishing and wildflowers before they took us to lunch at the OST Cafe, named for the Old Spanish Trail that once ran through the area, and yes, still full of Texas-style cowboys, spurs clinking and all. (That’s Dave and Jan above, and indeed, his t-shirt says “Living in Zin,” as in Zinfandel wine.) Dave and Jan may divide their time between Texas and the Oregon Coast, but they are rooted in the particulars of each place.
Heading on west across rolling limestone hills, I watched the live oaks gradually shrink until they were barely tall enough to be called trees, and the understory of grasses and wildflowers and shrubs change from those species that need moisture to those that know how to survive drought. The huge bald-cypress trees along the rivers changed to pecans at about Junction, where the flaming scarlet clumps of sumac we had been watching since west of San
Antonio were replaced by feathery mesquites.
In the Hill Country near Dave and Jan’s house, the butterflies were so numerous that we couldn’t avoid hitting them as we drove through their swarms,
resulting in a windshield smeared with opalescent streaks of iridescent scales over yellowish bodilyy fluids, surely some of the most gorgeous evidence of
roadkill ever. As we drove further west toward the massive buttes that tower over the Pecos River, the line between savanna and desert, those fluttering insects all but disappeared except for the occasional monarch taking its genes south for the winter. The live oaks vanished too, except along the washes, and the vegetation turned from savanna woodland to semi-desert shrubland, where trees retreat to the rare places boasting water.
The sun dived toward the horizon as we passed Fort Stockton. We exited the interstate headed for the blue-hazy peaks and buttes in the far distance. About half an hour later, the sun finally set, throwing rose and yellow rays across the whole western sky. The blaze of color persisted, becoming more intense and then contracting toward the horizon in a wide band of gold and then orange and finally bronze.
Just past Alpine, as Jupiter and the first stars were appearing in the blue-black sky overhead and the western horizon was still colored by the last glow of sunset, a meteor streaked across right in front of us. It shone brilliant blue-white and passed right through that after-sunset glow, low to the horizon and trailing a sparkling orange and blue tail. Both meteor and tail seemed large and intimately close, probably due to the magnifying effect of atmospheric dust so close to the horizon.
“Wow!” said Richard, his face stunned.
We held hands as we drove on and night descended, watching the black silhouettes of desert plants pass by out the car windows: the wand-like flower stalks of sotol, a tall lily with spiky leaves, the finely branched acacias, growing in the most contorted shapes, and the feathery bunches of Muhly grass.
As we reached Marfa and our motel, the two-days-past full moon rose behind us, nearly round and butter yellow. The silhouette of the lunar hare was clearly visible, dancing with ears blown back by the cosmic winds.
I take that blazing conjunction of sunset, meteor, and then the rising full moon as a good omen, a reminder that no matter what happens in our personal lives and the world, we can always find beauty enough to feed our souls–if we take the time to look.