a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
There are places others don’t believe carry wonder. Simple, unglamorous places. I can hold a few of their names in my palm like a handful of eggs. Hard to hold them too long, hard to let go of them, lest they drop, lest they ruin.
An hour southeast of San Antonio, you find Choke Canyon. Near a town called Three Rivers, near a petroleum refinery, not far, it stands—the lake, the shore, the canyon, of course, the alligators, the deer, the lantana and mesquites, the dam. As you drive up State Highway 72, two gates offer entrance into two separate areas of the park. The first time we visited, I pointed us into the wrong gate, which meant we had to turn around, our big red truck, my husband, the small hairless dog, the trailer squawking behind us. The South Shore of Choke Canyon State Park offers day-use only—fishing, hiking, birdwatching. We saw a roadrunner and her young, or I did, as my husband swung the axles wide enough to turn the trailer and truck around.
Farther down Highway 72, as you approach the Calliham Unit, the park entrance for campers, the road is dotted by a few unused motels, overgrown lots where RVs once situated themselves, a convenience store that is now closed. In the morning, the grasses, overgrown and full of wind, sway, as if taunting that it’s been a long time since they’ve been cut, perhaps touting the fact that while others did not survive, they, in fact, did. I should tell you that several years back there was a drought. Much of Texas can tell you about this. Other parts of America, of the world, too, can attest to the difficulties enacted by lack, the absence of water, by drought. I imagine lives here were much different in that day, before the water went missing, before it came back, and after.
Nothing really is the same after it undergoes hardship, after it endures a drought, an epidemic, some dire cruelty.
At Choke Canyon, there is a reservoir, and thus, there is a lake, human-made (as if it is any less of lake due to the fact that machines and people made it).
“The water levels are still not what they used to be,” I overheard a guy in a Stetson say.
Standing at its shores, I would never know the lake is only a lake because people. It is evident that water levels shifted, that some immense loss occurred, since once-submerged areas now pronounce themselves with grasses and small thorny bushes, the old ropes and old buoys, the old signages, contradicting the new growths. Nonetheless, its shores are long and winding, and the fishing brings anglers with their long rods, the spool, and their boats. Crowded with trucks and boat trailers, the parking lot near the boat ramp is asphalt, the kind of asphalt that appears less of itself because of wild grasses growing in its cracks, because of its earned dullness from years of living, exposed, under the constancy of sun, because of mesquite trees and thistle that surround it and songbirds that whistle. We passed the parking lot on the drive to our RV spot, and if I was more of an angler, this would be a place that might call me.
I am a simple unglamorous man.
One Easter I found a skeleton of an alligator gar on the shore of the lake.
Boats moved across the water. Or whispers, that trail of white upturned water cresting and falling behind.
Sniffing, nostrils flaring, my dogs went for the gar bones, and I yanked back on their leashes, taking them away from the remains of that fish. Clouds stashed the sun and did not budge, and with the sky above me, I stared at the fish bones, prehistoric face, long grey echo of what was once, each of the spines pointed and still dangerous even if the body had fled, left its scaffold, fell back into the earth or off into the wind as dust.
There is no splendor to an alligator gar’s skeletal remains. And yet, I find them splendid. Like I find the lake at Choke Canyon simple, unglamorous.
I am a simple unglamorous man.
When the sun begins to relinquish its hold of the sky, at that moment, the wild pinkish flares, the red-orange daggers of something greater than light, the purplish wisps of once-nimbus and still-cirrus, that moment, I find the lake more than itself. But at that moment, isn’t the lake all of it? Sun and night, dusk, cloudcover, water, groundshore and wind.
Staring at a sun setting over this lake, in my hand I can hold a few of my breaths.
I think I am as man-made as any lake.
That Easter, when I checked online for reservations, the other parks we liked were all full, which explains why we went to Choke Canyon that first time. Guadalupe and McKinney Falls and Bastrop, all of the Texas state parks in our area, were booked, so that the one place we could reserve a spot for our RV over the Easter weekend was Choke Canyon.
“There are alligators,” a good friend warned. “Keep your dogs away from the shore.”
Indeed, there is a sign in one area of the lakeshore that cautions that gators reside among the freshwater and reeds. Although I am one to often find myself imagining horrible endings to my life, or tragic setbacks, one of which would be the loss of a dog to a gator, I pushed as far as possible from my thinking the idea of gators, relying instead, solely, on my penchant for playing it safe rather than being sorry. When you grow up without safety nets, you learn that one single mistake can ruin you, and thus, it can ruin the people around you—so, it is easier, then, for me, as an adult, to walk the line steadily, no risk, few things, if anything, left to chance, which is a way of living that brings its own difficult conditions, its own consequences, its own losses and missed opportunities and safety. Nonetheless, my dogs went nowhere near the area of the lake where the gator signs were posted.
We arrived on a Saturday morning. The sun cut above us, avoiding cloud banks and eschewing the long walls of treeline between us and the sky. Already, the overnight section of the park teemed with Tejano music and children, with activities any morning at any campground would offer: dishwashing under an outdoor faucet, hanging towels and clothing that had dampened on a tailgate, tending the fire.
Having RVed for more than a couple of years, by this point, the set up went easily. It wasn’t always like this, not at first. Our only concern? Acquiring a spot as far removed from the other campers, a spot tree-surrounded and closer to the monte. As we were one of the first trailers to arrive that morning, we chose a spot other than the one assigned to us at check-in, phoning in our change to the park office, as directed. Separated from the adjacent spot by a small grove of mesquites and overgrown brush and monte grasses, the spot we selected was the first one you saw driving in to the RV area.
Although we were far from the lakeshore, we could see it, easily, the water in its calm-bodied posture and blueness, and hence, at dusk, we would be able to sit in front of our trailer with each other and with our dog and watch the sun fall out of the sky, the quotidian routine of vibrant skyhue and sunfire gnashing with the onslaught of dark. After we unhitched the trailer, I stood with the small hairless dog beside me, and watching a small rabbit at the edge of the thicket, just yards from the small blind dog, I considered this wasn’t such a bad place after all. That early in the morning, the smell of burning mesquite colored the air.
Lakeswell. Coyote jowl. Eyelock.
Owlhiss.Shore longer than any shore.
Shadow, an underwater tree.Old fish & old stone. Old old root, old
Fire & wind from the oldest of rivers—what other images swim
At the campground, one of the men told my husband that the town around the park faded with the drought. Even now the lake is only 33% full. Even now there are long regions of the groundshore where the water, noticeably, visibly, has pulled back, leaving buoys in shore grass, leaving sand and gar skulls and imaginings of what it once held.
A drought is another way to say the world will change with or without us.
Lack, I can tell you, wreaks the body with ideas about what the body deserves, what it is entitled to, what it does not need. As a man, I have gone without, trading off things I need with and for other things I need—food, housing, meds, affection—as for want? The first concern is what the body needs, and how often have we convinced ourselves the needs in our muscles and jaws is just want? All the while we live with a man, or a woman, all the while, much of that time, even, loving them, still. Maybe none of this talk is necessary to you, maybe part of one person’s brief suffering isn’t much time to you. My loneliness may not mean anything to someone not in my skin. But skin is skin, and so often, it hungers. Maybe your skin right now is asking you to listen. Maybe you already know this story about skin.
One side of the lake has cabins, which families rent, or couples, or friends, and walking my two big dogs, it is easy to understand the draw of simplicity, that stillness, sky and dirt and trees and water, the wind and the deer, which is the ability of Choke Canyon to attract people from all over South Texas. There’s a softball field, which appears no one uses anymore, along with picnic areas, which also appear to be less utilized, and there are boat ramps, a pier, and places for washing and cutting fish, largemouth bass and catfish, mostly, that are caught. At night, fires shed light on the fact of it: people gather outside to listen and to tell their parts of this life, just to be with others with whom they share some connection, bloodkin, camaradas, courtship, love. Of all the reasons to love gathering in darkness and outdoors, perhaps it’s the proximity to the unknown that drives us to sit together, to eat near one another, to wander off and eventually, necessarily, return. Near the darkness of trees and thistle, we may camp, but we keep fire and we keep company and we pass along true things in stories and talk—we keep watch.
What was the land before it was this? What kind of man was I before I am this one?
By looking at the land of Choke Canyon, I could never tell you its story. I could never tell you this area—the hills, flatlands and fields of mesquite and Bell’s vireo, the monte—all of it, once was seafloor. Underwater terrain, seascape of monoliths and dark ancestral fish, which no longer exist.
Nothing can ready me for understanding this: readiness for seeing the world as it was before you is not proof that there is God. I can look other places for that proof.
The State Park website reveals that the land of Choke Canyon came to be during the era just after the mass extinction of dinosaurs; Cenozoic, that time period is called. What prompts me to care about this is exactly what prompts me to ask the world what I am made of and how I came to be. If there were ancient rivers pushing their currents into this land, I can only say it today because geologists and archaeologists have put their hands into the soil, onto the stones, the hands that have grown over a scientist’s eyes, coursing above and through water, through sedimentary consolidation with rock and bones. The long and short of it is that this used to be the Gulf. A gulf. That ancient tributaries pushed their deposits where we stand in Choke Canyon is a testament to our smallness. To say that silt made the land is to borrow from another person’s words, which is to borrow from an understanding of the world where humans are not center and margin and text, but also, isn’t this story, isn’t this the terrain of my own making—depositing, sediment, silt, mud?
I do like the way it feels to be small in light of such marvels. Like standing in the tailend of a comet. Like listening to the songs of ancient whales because they invite us to listen. A kind of infinitesimal love is necessary for darkness to have meaning. For the unknown to both terrify and enamor a body.
Obviously, I am a romantic for past worlds, for places on earth that no longer exist, taken away from us by forces greater than man, taken away by man, taken away from themselves so that we become. To come to terms with my romanticism of old worlds, I simply admit that greater things exist than my body, this brown voice made of horse muscle and conch songs. And to come to terms with the idea that we are each born of ancient rivers, that we each are built of sediments and silt, I ask my body to be more than a body, to ask of itself the only thing we can ask of flesh, which is to be flesh, which is to need and to want, to feel.
As simple as Choke Canyon may seem, there is awe in scorpion feet like birdsong, in the buck rubbing its yellowing antlers against crooked trunks of mesquite, in the mud-caked remains of odd-looking fishbones, in the sun’s full press against stale water and treelines and the rest of the marvelous sky.
And what is awe but the body reminding itself of its own godliness?
And what is awe but the breath not asking the body to leave but going?
Shale and limestone, tuff, claystone, siltstone.
And I think, too, of my own basic parts: iron in the blood, nitrogen, the calcium of the hard matter in my body, as in teeth, as in bone, the carbon I will eventually become.
Carl Sagan told us “we were made in the interiors of collapsing stars.”
As much as we may try, there is no way to avoid the old rivers and the ancient Gulf, the intermittent seas, the collapsing stars that, over time, before and after our first and final breaths, also have made us who we are.
To say I am a simple man is to say that I am a mestizaje of ancestors’ skin promises and dust, a mestizaje of my grandmother’s dreams for me and the hierarchies that give and take from my life. This means brownness, this means queerness, this means that my family once was very hungry and poor—and this means I am of the soil as much as I am of salt water and wind. For what is the body but everything we are not any longer, what we were, once, long ago, deposits and fossilized wish, tracks of those who walked over us, those who lifted us up, and minerals like silt? When I ask these questions, I am standing in the sun, and when I write this, I carry, inside me, a portion of my husband’s love from this morning. The body is also all of it, isn’t it?
Nothing is as set in stone as breath. When it comes, it ends. When it comes, it becomes something else.
After spending the night by the lake, that next morning, Easter morning, I walked the dogs, the young red Boxer, who’d only been with us a few months, after our pit bull died, and the Mastiff, who’d been with me for most of her seven years, and as we walked through the blackbush acacia, the clumps of wild lantana and mesquite, we came upon a group of wild turkeys. Six of them, I counted. Their short plump bodies, their red, red throats and long necks. Bluish heads. Plumage as dark as a handful of new coal. I steadied the dogs in their leashes, and I steadied my own hands.
For a moment, we watched the turkeys beyond the mesquite trees and the tall grasses, we watched them be turkeys in an opening, moving slowly, picking their faces into the damp grass, seeking insects and mast, seeds, standing beside one another, adults and poults grazing among the South Texas morning dew, their bodies nothing at all like I have ever thought of turkeys before. Most obviously, I think of turkeys as food, and then, of course, there are the renderings of turkeys as brown and feathered, on the verge of thankfulness, cornucopias and parades, white dinner plates, hand cut-outs, construction paper, and football games. These were wild turkeys, however, Rio Grande most likely. In the morning, without people, with only dawn and hunger, with only each other, turkeys are something entirely different from what we make them.
I suppose if you watch anything you unlearn it and learn it all over again.
It’s hard to believe my dogs, that morning, did not want to chase birds, large birds, at that—other mornings, I likely would not be able to say the same. It’s hard to believe they did anything else but steady their own hearts, but watch the wild turkeys, as I was doing, as I could only, and with no want to do anything else that morning, do.
The world is what we make of it. Jodie Foster said it. In the movie Contact. Foster as the scientist, as the one who listened to washing machines, trying to find patterns in chaos and noise, as the person who makes contact with intelligent life beyond us. Foster as the truth-teller, even in front of the chorus of minds asking if she believed in God.
The world is what we make of it. I can say it again and again, over and over, roll it around my mouth like a bean, and do I believe it? Do I let it live out its truth without trying to change it, without trying to make it my own?
I can see how, by comparison, now, by contrast, Choke Canyon can become someone’s Plan B. The allure of the Guadalupe River or the Loblollies of Bastrop, even burned and going through the process of regenerating themselves on the hills, can outshine any prospect of enjoying time someplace else. But it’s the stutter that I blame for our discovery. It’s the stutter I blame for rippling in my breath. Had the other parks not been filled, we might never have found Choke Canyon.
It is these simple facts that both terrify and enamor me—to think I could go my entire life never knowing them, overlooking their marvelous simplicities, that I might live on without knowing the wonder of wild turkeys in the morning grass, of my husband sighing as he makes a good fire, of my small ancient dog standing at water’s edge, staring at the sky, staring at an idea I will never see.
Perhaps it is true that some of us are formed more by the great giant cataclysms of our lives: deaths and heartaches, wars, violations. But, some of us might, in fact, be made more by the smallest matter: the olive sparrows, the coarse gasping whistle of common pauraque, a javelina who came in the night, which we only detect by its scat marks or tracks. I’d like to think it’s the smallest, most basic experiences that make me. I’d like to believe I allow it. The great ones, indeed, have undone me, and it’s the smallest things—those testaments to my smallness— I’ve used to reassemble again. Therein, terror. Therein, love.
Most nights, if I can, I will sit by our fire. It is a fascinating story, all the people in the world who have sat in front of fires over time, across centuries, on every continent, last year, last night, tomorrow. What goes through our heads? What are we thinking looking into that light, into that darkness? What are we fleeing toward, from? The triumph of sitting by a fire at night is a startling honesty. One vision is everywhere we’ve been. Another vision is where we are going, and with whom. Where are we, we might tell ourselves, or ask. As for other visions, yes. The afterthought, the clue, the footnote, the asterisk, silt. I am only reporting what happens to me by fire: sometimes it is plainly and humanly about warmth, yet other times, other times, it is about what every old river has deposited in our lives. Is there any better way to look at that silt? I imagine there are others like me, for whom fire is like this—I hope.
On our last night at the lake, I sit in an old chair in front of the fire my husband has made. Above our trailer, the sky is darker than any city sky, and stars begin their clash with darkness both older and younger than their light. Near the lantern, my husband busies himself with the meat and the corn, the calabaza, he is about to grill. Beside me, the three dogs sit with their eyes shut, their ears upright and open for things that move the air. This is our second trip to Choke Canyon. I already know the sunsets. I’ve already walked the shoreline, already asked the world for more time, for a way not to go back to the city and to simultaneously have my privileges and safeties as well. I’ve already paused my life for wildness, and I will pause it, my life, for wildness for so many other minutes of my life, if I am lucky, and also, and perhaps more necessarily, I will allow myself to breathe in these moments of wildness, to not be suffocated by my wants or fears, to not allow my guilts and shames to smother me, because of wildness.
As the fire eats away at the orangeness of the logs, it is our last night before returning to the city; it is the last camping trip for the small hairless dog, the xolo itzcuintli we call Tiny, with his blindness and his three good legs, and his heart full of loyalty and old love and thanks. In time, Tiny, also, will become silt for me, as I will become silt for those who love me today. In time, I will carry his small vessel of ashes along with the ashes of Amber, his mate, and Kimber, the big red pit bull, to the Gulf, near my hometown, where I will ask my niece to help me open the urns and return their loved bodies to the salt sea and the wind and the old shore. I will use my breath to say their names, in hopes that, one day, someone will say my name as they let go of my ashes in this wind on this shore.