Writing with a Sense of Place

A couple weeks ago, it was my privilege to teach a class for the Writers League of Texas (writersleague.org) at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.


Susan Weeks is not pictured. Susan was flooded in the RV Park where she was staying on Friday morning, and didn’t make it to the last class.

I say it was a privilege because I had a great group of students to kick around the whole idea of writing, communicating, what it all means, and why we do what we do.

One student, Light T. Cummins, was in his last week of being the official State Historian of Texas. (Like I said, this was an exceptionally talented group.)

Light was kind enough to share his blog about his experiences, which I am sharing here.
Here’s the link to his blog, An Historian of Texas (historianoftexas.blogspot.com)

And here’s what he wrote:
Is there a difference between being an author and a writer? Until last week, I would have said yes, because it has long been my contention that authors and writers are not the same literary animal. My opinion was that historians (including myself) are authors only. We are not writers. Academic historians research and write synthetic works of historical analysis. What we say is potentially more important to us than how we say it. Writers, in particular those who deal in non-fiction, were to me a different breed of folk. They have the freedom to write from their feelings, observations, and opinions in ways that academic historians do not. The way a writer says something with their words can be the main event of what they write.

My mind has been changed about this and I now contend there is no difference between a good writer and a good author. Historians are writers, or at least they should attempt to be. This revelation came to me because I recently attended the summer writing workshop sponsored by the Writer’s League of Texas. The League holds this annual event at Sul Ross State University in Alpine. I was one of almost a dozen students in a seminar taught by Joe Nick Patoski, who is one of the most wide-published writers in the southwestern United States. “Writing with Sense of Place” served as the title and frame of reference for this seminar.

Joe Nick Patoski
Joe Nick Patoski has written a shelf-full of books that people read everyday. His forthcoming book on the history of the Dallas Cowboys promises to be a true blockbuster. Joe Nick put all of us attending the seminar through our writing paces while he engaged in a constantly fascinating barrage of animated talk that explained literally everything he knew about how to be a writer. His talk is the equal of his writing. Over the course of the week he extemporaneously spoke a book to us verbally. Its title could have been “How To Be a Good Writer.” It was a magnum opus.

Tom Michael and Rachael Osler Lindley visited the seminar to talk about their radio station, KRTS, 93.5 FM. This PBS station, popularly known as Marfa Public Radio, is one of the smaller public broadcasting stations in the nation. It mounts each day a full schedule of national and local programs, many of which highlight writers and their work. It was fun while in Alpine to tune-in KRTS on my radio dial instead of being an internet listener, my usual means of hearing the station. Historian Lonn Taylor also visited our group to read from his latest book, Rambling Boy, and talk about his very popular writing. Taylor writes a regular column for the Big Sentinel in addition to being heard regularly on Marfa Public Radio. Curator Mary Bones took us on a tour of the Museum of the Big Bend, something that regally highlighted our sense of place about the region.

The fine writing and cogent comments manifested by the other participants in the seminar, many of whom are also published writers, served as powerful reinforcements to Joe Nick’s writing exercises, the class visitors, and our group discussions. I was happy with my participation because I was able to shake the archival dust off some of the things that I wrote in the seminar. In fact, a few things I put on paper actually read as if they had been written by a writer.

For Joe Nick Patoski’s website, Click Here.
For the Writer’s League of Texas website, Click Here.
For Marfa Public Radio, Cllick Here.
For Lonn Taylor’s column, Rambling Boy, Click Here.
For the Museum of the Big Bend, Click Here.

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Generations on the Land book review

OK, they misspelled my last name, but beyond that minor detail, the reviewer gets the gist of the book.

Journal of Sustainability Education

March 18th, 2012
Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy, by Joe Nick Patosky. A review.
By Richard Pritzlaff

The landscape of any farm is the owner’s portrait of himself.

-Aldo Leopold

With regard to management of working lands (private lands engaged in the production of food and fiber), sustainability requires the ability to produce what is necessary for survival today, while understanding the complex relationships within which management of resources must be accomplished to preserve them intact or improved for the future. Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy, authored by Texas journalist and writer Joe Nick Patoski, describes some of the skills, motivations, and reasoning behind the progressive land management practiced by eight winners of the Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award. Each chapter is a vignette illustrating the difficult and challenging work of six ranching families, a family forestry operation, and a family of vintners.

While well written and interesting, if you are looking for a discussion and analysis of the deeper complex relationships between ecology, production, and economics you will not find it here. This book is not a deep read, and it is not meant to be; this is storytelling. As such it simply mentions a few of the many agro-economic and ecologic realities that fundamentally drive land management decisions.

On occasion the narrative touches on deeper insights. For instance, the loss of jobs and profit margins experienced by local agriculture (silvaculture in this case) as a consequence of downward price pressures is related to global markets unsustainably overharvesting resources:

Terry Peters had witnessed dramatic changes in silvaculture in the thirty five years he had been working these woods. Logging used to be the dominant lifestyle of the region, defined by rugged men wielding axes…and sawmills around almost every bend of the river… But as wood processing evolved into a global industry, the wood workforce in Wisconsin and across the United States declined rapidly. Hanging on in a business where the competition included Brazilian eucalyptus plantations owned by American paper companies, massive logging operations in New Zealand, and clear-cut operations in China, required creative thinking (pp. 44, 45).

The book’s real value is found in what is revealed and implied through the stories told by the working families in their own words. One of the important insights repeated in several of the chapters is a contrast to the view accepted by many farmers and ranchers that regulation and environmentalists are the main threat to ranch viability. The reality of past abuse resulting in degraded lands is cited as most often to blame:

…dad sat on the BLM grazing board…We understood the West was overgrazed…Those were hard times back in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s…For (dad) the light went on when President Roosevelt signed the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. The act held liable every individual party that held a federal grazing permit. Before the act was signed, stockraisers could graze public lands to the point of destroying grasses… (pp. 8, 9).

Decisions to restore degraded lands and to manage within ecologic limits are for the most part enlightened self interest and practical business decisions made to enhance productivity. In addition to greater management options and revenue sources resulting from more productive lands and functioning ecosystems, the skills acquired accomplishing this work are increasingly marketable for those willing to look for opportunities beyond their own fences:

If you can convert to organic, your quality goes way up and…you can command a higher price…We burned this year just out of the need to burn…went the extra mile and received official burn training and certification…secured a $1 million insurance policy to do business as a Conservation Fire Team…consulting and burning for hire all over West and Central Texas (pp. 102, 103).

In addition to acknowledging that restoration has to be accomplished, another hopeful message from these families is the realization that bigger and more isn’t necessarily better. “‘Some people see the land in terms of dollars and wealth’, Teddi Coleman said. ‘We think you can’t put a price on that water, that field. We live in what I call rustic elegance. We don’t have frills, but we have all this natural elegance around us’” (p.63).

By constantly highlighting the true nature of this important work, the author accurately supplies credit where credit is due. For although ranchers, loggers, and farmers relish the ideal of their perceived independence and self-reliance, these stories reveal the partnerships that are essential for restoring working lands. Restoration is complex, costly, and time consuming. Accessing correct information for a particular practice and understanding the latest techniques as they may apply to a specific need takes experience. The work is costly and labor intensive. Mistakes often make things worse than before the project began. Fortunately there are many federal and state programs offering technical and cost share assistance. Private conservation organizations also work to help landowners achieve their restoration goals and are also able to supply volunteers and low cost labor. This is good public policy in practice, which until recently enjoyed bi-partisan political support. Maybe the horrific and costly fires this past summer will remind more short sighted politicians about being “penny-wise and pound foolish.”

In addition to celebrating the accomplishments of the families that are its subject, this short enticing book also helps as a bridge across the political and cultural gaps between working families and those of us who, while not daily working land for a living, share common interest in healthy sustainable food-systems and ecosystems. It touches on complex issues in a way that offers a non-threatening opening for ranchers and non-ranchers to talk and think about the management of working lands. This in essence is at the heart of applied sustainability education.

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Pleasures of the High Rhine: A Texas Singer in Exile book review

Richard Dobson is a Texas singer-songwriter from Tyler and former roughneck who gamboled around Galveston and Houston, then Austin and Nashville, before spending the past 13 years living in Switzerland and playing all over Europe. That’s the shorthand. The long version is this fine piece of contemporary literature, Pleasures of the High Rhine – A Texas Singer in Exile.

I’ve known Richard since the 1970s when he was hanging around Austin and sometimes touring as part of Townes Van Zandt’s band, as told in his previous book Gulf Coast Boys, and have stayed in touch over the years by reading his eloquent observations in his occasional Don Ricardo’s Life and Times newsletter.

He’s enjoyed nominal success, his songs having been covered by Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Kelly Willis, Carlene Carter and Dave Edmunds, and the Carter Family, among others. As solid as his tunes are, it’s Dobson’s literary writing that grabs me.

Pleasures of the High Rhine was written at a critical time in Dobson’s life: his friends Townes and the writer Roxy Gordon have died fairly young, leaving him to contemplate their lives and demise. A red-haired Swiss woman has left her family and joined him in Galveston for a year before returning to Switzerland as a couple. A new millennium has begun.

Pleasures of the High Rhine covers songwriting, collaborating, performing and recording with a German band led by Thomm Jutz (now a Nashville cat), the strangeness of playing venues that ostensibly showcase American country music, and observations thereof, a critical skill for any songwriter.

But it’s also about living as an expatriate in a foreign country, redefining what home is, learning to speak German, being welcomed into a new family, living on the Swiss-German border, food, drink, his relationship with Edith, trips back to Houston and Nashville, gardening (including growing his own marijuana in a society that doesn’t much care one way or another) aging, and, water.

The latter is where Dobson really sings. He opens with a passage about fishing in the Gulf off of Galveston, down to describing the second and third sandbars offshore and the joys of “green water” fishing in the fall when the Gulf clarifies briefly into Caribbean-like beauty. Finding beauty in its harsh roughness, he writes the Texas Gulf like no one I’ve read before.

He soon finds himself on the Rhine River and delves into it with similar zeal and a newfound curiosity.

His pursuit of a fishing license – no easy thing in Switzerland, requiring an extensive 140 question test in Deutsch – a steep learning curve how to fish the Rhein, especially for elusive trout, and his summer swims in the river lead to deep history of the river and its inhabitants, including not so pleasant events such as Kristalnacht when synagogues were burned and Jews persecuted, and the historic fouling and restoration of the waterway.

He gets it.

Contemporary global events such as the election of George W. Bush and 9-11 are seen from a distance that lends perspective, written by a kindred spirit.

The finest singer-songwriters possess the gift where their words often transcend the music. In Pleasures of the High Rhine, Richard Dobson’s words simply sing.

Available through mytexasmusic.com

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Book signing at Book People, Sat, June 25

Join me at Book People Saturday, June 25 at 5 pm for a talk and book signing for “Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy” published by Texas A&M Press.

603 N. Lamar, Austin TX 78703

Open daily, 9am to 11pm Call us at (512) 472-5050
Start: 06/25/2011 5:00 pm

Author and journalist JOE NICK will speak about and sign his new book, Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy.

Each year, Sand County Foundation’s prestigious Leopold Conservation Award recognizes families for leadership in voluntary conservation and ethical land management. In Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy, veteran author and journalist Joe Nick Patoski visits eight of the award-winning families, presenting warm, heartfelt conversations about the families, their beloved land, and a vision for a healthier world.

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Texas Ranges

Texas Mountains - coverTexas Ranges

Texas Monthly
by Joe Nick Patoski
November 2001

 

For most of their lives, senior editor Joe Nick Patoski and freelance photographer Laurence Parent have explored and chronicled the mountains of the Trans-Pecos. In this excerpt from their forthcoming book, Texas Mountains, they show and tell where their love of the outdoors is at its peak.

I GOT HOOKED ON THE TEXAS MOUNTAINS at the age of six, when I climbed to the top of a small hill adjacent to the Chisos Basin lodge in Big Bend National Park, rode on horseback to the Window, and peered over what seemed then to be the edge of the world. I became fixated on the idea that there was actually a place called the Christmas Mountains; it was visible through the Window’s massive slickrock aperture, beyond the park’s northwestern border.

The relationship continued through my youth, when I discovered that there wasn’t a more enchanting city view in Texas than the twinkling lights of El Paso and Juárez at night, seen from Scenic Drive on Mount Franklin. I climbed the pilgrims’ path to the top of Mount Christo del Rey and straddled the line between Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua. As an adult, I’ve touched the roof of Texas atop Guadalupe Peak, perched on the edge of the South Rim of the Chisos in Big Bend on a brilliantly clear day when objects two hundred miles distant were visible—the biggest view in the whole world—and watched a comet from the top of Mount Locke at McDonald Observatory, illuminated by more stars than the eye can comprehend in the darkest skies in America.

These mountains are located in the Trans-Pecos part of Texas, which stretches for some 250 miles east to west and extends about 200 miles north to south—about the size of South Carolina. It is the most sparsely populated part of the state. Save for the city of El Paso, where more than half a million people live, no more than 30,000 residents live here. “Wide-open spaces” is not just some catchphrase in this part of the state. They really do exist. Within the boundaries of the Trans-Pecos sprawl the thirty-odd named ranges of Texas. The Trans-Pecos is a region so expansive that several of its counties are bigger than entire states. This is the Texas of dreams.

The easternmost ranges, the Housetops and Spencers, flank U.S. 90 twenty miles east of Marathon like two sentinels. The Glass Mountains, the first range of significant height and breadth, swell up more than a mile above sea level between Marathon, Fort Stockton, and Alpine. From there all the way to the state and the international boundaries to the northwest, west, and southwest, mountains dominate the landscape. Some consider the Texas mountains to be the southern extension of the Rocky Mountains, tumbling out of Colorado and New Mexico. But only the Davis Mountains, the wettest and one of the highest ranges in the state, and the Guadalupes, the highest range of all, with the four tallest peaks in Texas, really resemble their Colorado neighbors.

These are not easy mountains to love. They lack the altitude and drama of either the Sierra Nevadas or the Rockies. The tallest mountain in Texas, the 8,751-foot Guadalupe Peak, would hardly rate a glance on the other side of the New Mexico line. They are located in one of the least accessible places in the continental United States, far from most population centers. As a result, few people even know they are here. Even though Interstate 10 cuts through several ranges, most travelers keep their eyes glued to the road and have no idea what they’re passing through. The two most impressive ranges in the state, the Guadalupes and the Chisos, are protected as national parks, but most of the other ranges in the Trans-Pecos and the Big Bend remain unknown and unseen because they’re off-limits. Unlike other western states, where federal lands sometimes comprise more than half of a given state’s land area, Texas is mostly private property, mountains included.

This is a harsh country. Annual rainfall averages barely ten inches a year, and a severe drought persisted for almost a decade at the close of the twentieth century. Each of the four seasons has its own hellish peculiarity. The blistering winds of early spring are brutal. An ovenlike heat can set in as early as March. The soothing midsummer monsoons of July, August, and September, which can green up the countryside overnight, can bring killer floods with them too.

When the monsoons don’t come—which happens more and more frequently these days—the furnace effect down on the desert floor of the Big Bend becomes so severe that every living thing, it seems, either burns, dies, or withers away. But even when that kind of heat is on, up on the Marfa Highlands or in the Davises and the Guadalupes, in August it’s chilly enough at night to sleep with a blanket. The coolest summer nights in Texas are in the Texas mountains. Starting in mid-November, blue northers blast in the bitterest cold, dropping temperatures as much as fifty degrees in as little as an hour and occasionally leaving a dusting of snow on the mountaintops, stirring visions of the Rockies or the Alps if only for a day or two. Yet the same season can also bring temperatures above 100 degrees to the lower desert.

For the people who love these mountains, such realities are really blessings that have kept away the crowds. After all, who wants to share the stands of quaking aspen found in the Davis range, the maples of the Guadalupes and the Sierra Vieja, and the small slivers of greened-up high country that flourish on the mountaintops and in crevices and crannies, far from public view? If you’re blowing through at 70 miles per hour on the interstate or peering out the window of a jet plane at 30,000 feet, you won’t get it. Those of us who do get it like that just fine. We know, as I have learned, that there is much more than meets the eye. These mountains just require a little more patience and a whole lot more effort.

Many of the Texas ranges—the Guadalupes, the Delawares, the Huecos, and the Franklins—are largely devoid of vegetative cover because of a dearth of moisture. Because they are so naked, they expose thousands and millions of years in their layers and folds and are a playground for geologists. Within the Texas mountains are geological features and formations found nowhere else on the planet: a stone freak show of weird globs, jagged spires, gravity-defying balancing acts, marbled swirls, scoops of melted ice cream, and dribbled sand castles that wildly vary from extraterrestrial to lunar in appearance. In spite of their apparent desolation, the mountains harbor a huge variety of plant and animal species. The area is part of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest and highest desert in North America. Here life flourishes in surprising places: on a remote cloud-catching ridgeline or under a rare canopy of shade in hidden canyons fed by springs and waterfalls.

Even though they are not the highest mountains around, these ranges offer some of the most striking panoramas anywhere. Range after range fades to the vanishing point, each separated from the next by vast desert floors that go on forever. From the top of Mount Livermore in the Davis Mountains, the highest peak in the second-highest range in Texas, mountain landmarks are clearly visible in every direction: the rectangular hump of Chinati Peak to the south; the long ridgeline of the Sierra Viejas bulging out of the flats to the south and toward the west, fading into the Van Horns, the Apaches, the Eagles, the Beaches, the Baylors, and the Sierra Diablos. Beyond them all is the lone sentinel of Sierra Blanca, marking the route to El Paso and the Pacific.

The last time I was in the Chisos Basin, I noticed that little hill by the lodge again. Forty-three years had passed since I first scaled it. For much of that time, the little hill didn’t seem that big. It was but another example of how things shrink and diminish when you grow up. Lately though, it has started looking more like a mountain to me again, just like it did when I was a kid. Just like it does to kids scurrying up its rocks today, I’ll bet.

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