Thursday, March 29, 2012

Roads, Fences, Personally Autographed Pictures Of Jesus



A man I know ranches the eastern Concho Valley in the almost desert dry country around the town of Eden.  We do what men in West Texas do when we meet-- which is to talk about rain, the lack thereof, the prospects of...
Vicinity of Red Creek, north of San Angelo



Occasionally, our conversation turns to the status of my pet project of creating a fairly accurate and fairly complete plant checklist for the western Concho Valley and moves on to the related subject of where the desert begins.  He is of the opinion Highway 277 marks the spot where the land shifts from merely miserably hot and dusty and dry to outskirts-of-hell- hot and dusty and dry...



He may be right.  If one follows the road north towards Abilene, one passes what locals refer to as Devil's Mountain.  The Texas Handbook Online discusses this butte under its formal name-- Devil's Courthouse Peak.  It rises, the article says, to 2315 feet above sea level in the midst of hilly terrain marked by "shallow stony soils that support scrub brush, sparse grasses, creosote bush, and cacti."  Another man whom I know comes from a family that was among the first to ranch the area surrounding Devil's Mountain.  He doesn't know how the hill got its diabolical appellation and knows no one who does but says it is an entirely appropriate appellation...

Devil's Mountain


Should one decide to head to the pleasures of a border town, Highway 277 snakes its way through southern Tom Green County, past the metropolises of Eldorado and Sonora, down to Val Verde County on the Rio Grande.  The road's terminal point in the United States is the town of Del Rio, home to Dr John R Brinkley in the 1920s and early 1930s, who crossed a bridge to broadcast across the river from the Mexican radio station XER-AM.  Brinkley had a diploma from a mail-order medical school, a clinic transplanting goat glands into men concerned about waning sexual prowess, plus lucrative sideline businesses that sold "genuine simulated" diamonds and personally autographed pictures of Jesus Christ...

John R Brinkley and wife at work


[Brinkley, a fascinating character, merits a future blog entry devoted solely to his chicanery and checkered career.  He enjoyed whooping, hollering and cajoling for hours on end over the radio but realized his audience would stray if he didn't find other ways to entertain them.  The dubious doctor solved this problem by giving live air time to country music acts (Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and Gene Autry being among them) hoping to break through to the big time.  XER's 50,000 watts guaranteed the yodelers a national audience.   To a very large extent, Brinkley can be credited with creating and shaping a mass market for white "roots" music.  So many rural musicians flocked to Del Rio to take advantage of the opportunities now open to them that the dusty desert border town found itself nicknamed "Hillbilly Hollywood"]  

John Romulus Brinkley and Del Rio Mansion


While we are still in Tom Green County, our jaunt down 277 crosses the country near the town of Christoval, home to a women's art colony in the 1920s and a monastery cum winery today.  Low flat land, it is broken by distant ridgelines.  Deer and rabbits can be found in the mesquite-juniper-creosote bush-live oak plant community that zigzags southwest toward the desolation of Crockett County...

Desert shrubs along 277 south of San Angelo include Feather Dalea, Vine
Ephedra, and Catclaw Acacia


My friend who says desert country lies west of 277 is a successful professional man, trained in the sciences.  He listens to me discuss evapotranspiration rates, hears my suggestion that his ranch is actually close to the point in the Concho Valley where potential water loss becomes three times greater than annual rainfall averages.  He shakes his head.  The test, he says, is much easier.  The land on the other side of fences along 277 just looks hard and dry and mean, plain and pure and simple...


West of 277



Note: Photographs of John R Brinkley located through Google Images without source information; all others by the author  

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Mass Market Mantics
"Millionaires don't have astrologers.  Billionaires do."-- financier John Pierpont Morgan, (unverified comment attributed to Morgan in a May 3,1988 San Jose Mercury article by astrologer Sidney Omarr)
Zolar had a secret identity...
Zolar's Secret Identity: Bruce King

This secret identity lived in a world where every new day seemed to bring new scientific discoveries on frontiers of knowledge scarcely imagined a few decades earlier.  It worked in a city whose movie industry had begun to explore supernatural and magical themes, producing black and white tales of curses stretching from the Egypt of the Pharaohs to modern day London, of men turned into wolves by the power of the moon, of cackling maniacs exulting as lightning flashes reanimated the dead.  It helped revive interest in ancient sciences rejected by modern science...
But it also lived in a world of grim realities.  Millions of people struggled to find work, many standing in long lines at food kitchens for a hot meal with a sermon for dessert.  Men who had believed in certainties found uncertainty was the new rule.  In 1932, the Great Depression gripped the nation when Bruce King, a still successful securities salesman, decided the country needed a strong but inexpensive dose of hope.  And it didn't hurt this elixir might make him a bit richer...
Venus in Scorpio... a passionate lover who craves a life of luxury

King, born in 1897 in the Windy City aka Chicago aka Hog Butcher to the World, briefly tried his hand at acting.  This career path wasn't in the stars for the man who combined "Zodiac" and "Solar" to create a professional name but it did bring him to Los Angeles where he became part owner of a radio station whose manager, a chap named Kobar, cast horoscopes.  Kobar, it seemed to King, had an uncanny knack for making the right business moves at precisely the right moment.  As fate or synchronicity or astral destiny would have it, King met a second astrologer in the same week Kobar left the station to pursue other opportunities.  The two men conjured up an "Astrograph" machine which they marketed to movie houses.  It worked like a weight machine.  Drop a dime in the slot, out pops a slip of paper, not with a reminder to go on a diet, but with tailor-made advice from the Sun, Moon, and Planets.  Theater owners nationwide liked the novel idea.  Even more, they liked their cut of the profits...
Pretty girls gather around a 1950s Horoscope Machine for
advice on meeting the perfect millionaire and husband
The erstwhile stockbroker became fascinated by the product he sold.  He dove into the study of astrology, learning to cast horoscopes and discern patterns of planetary influences denied by modern science.  Now Zolar, King started a publishing company devoted to mantic arts.  The core of his business may have been mass market horoscope magazines for uncritical audiences, but Zolar took his subject seriously, penning a number of volumes devoted to the theory and history of occult subjects.  A personal favorite of mine, published two years prior to King's death in 1972, was the enticingly titled Encyclopedia of Ancient and Forbidden Knowledge...
Vast numbers of scientists puzzle over the enduring appeal of astrology.  It fails a basic test.  Predictions do not always come true.  Physicists and chemists operate in a world where water boils and freezes at a certain temperature.  A scientist with a Bunsen burner and an ounce of H2O in Russia achieves the same result as a scientist with the same items in Scotland, Malaysia or Kansas.  Oft heard is the lament more people know their sun sign than know the distance from the earth to the sun...
Bruce King's successful career over five decades as a mass market seer was only one of many careers moving astrology from the province inhabited by muttering old ladies and cranky old men to a world of well-dressed persons and fashionable drawing rooms.  Perhaps, if there is something to the notion that seances allow us to chat with the dearly departed, scientists may find answers as to how and why this happened by communing with the shade of Carroll Righter...
Carroll Righter: Adviser to Presidents

"Pappy" Righter passed away at age 88 in 1988.  He started out, so he told the millions who read his column, as a skeptic who did not believe in mumbo-jumbo dating back to Sumerian times.  Righter revised traditional astrology to make it palatable to modern folk, much the same way Walt Disney glossed over grisly details in a Grimmer version of Snow White to create a lovely young lady who sang to cheerful bluebirds and happy dwarves.  One of Pappy's revisions was to use the term "Moon Children" when talking about those born under the sign of Cancer the Crab, to avoid subconscious association with dreaded diseases.  Righter also moved easily among money and power, building a clientele with a well-oiled publicity machine which included actor Robert Mitchum before the future Hollywood tough-guy moved to star roles of a different kind.  The California State Legislature proclaimed "the Gregarious Aquarius" to be the Twentieth Century's most influential astrologer... 
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Righter had a lucrative legal practice advocating for the genteel social class of Philadelphia.  One account has it he moved to the West Coast for health reasons.  Another version says he became friends with the astrologer Evangeline Adams, a descendant of two Presidents by her own account, who advised he relocate.  Her client list included J P Morgan, perhaps the most powerful financier in American history.  Others visiting her studio at Carnegie Hall included King Edward VII, actress Mary Pickford, and opera singer Enrico Caruso who reportedly would not cross the Atlantic unless Adams assured him the stars were favorable for an ocean voyage...
Linda Goodman's 1968 bestseller revived mass
market interest in the solar astrology practiced
Zolar and Carroll Righter and became an almost
indespensible home accessory for New Agers

John Pierpont Morgan probably did not actually say billionaires had astrologers but he likely thought along those lines.  Students of late 19th and early 20th Century American history are hard-pressed to find a single individual who shaped the economic landscape of his time as much or as powerfully as did Morgan.  As a financier, he arranged for the mergers creating General Electric and US Steel and essentially controlled the nation's railway system through a series of interlocking directorates.  Hints of the magnitude of Morgan's impact can be seen in the fact that flags flew at half-staff on Wall Street on the day of his funeral...
J P Morgan, financier and architect of the Industrial
Age, for whom Wall Street flags flew at half-staff

Of Morgan's devotion to astrology and his astrologer, there is little doubt.  Evangeline Adams flat out told him NOT to board the Titanic under any circumstance.  It was one of the few times in his life that the devout Episcopalian and founder of the Metropolitan Club did not later regret being told what to do.  Morgan regularly had Adams compare his birth chart with those of corporations he considered financing to determine the best time for business deals.  When Adams was arrested in 1911, charged with violating  fortune-telling ordinances, he directed one of New York's leading defense attorneys to represent her...

Adams, incidentally, dressed up as a gypsy and sprinkled shiny powder on her clients in the early days of her career.  It is difficult to know the truth of her early life since most of the information we have on the subject comes from one source-- her autobiography.  She claimed to have been born to an upper class family several months after her father suffered terrible business losses which placed his daughter in the uncomfortable position of having to go to work at an early age.  Adams collaborated with notorious English mage Alistair Crowley, who called himself the Great Beast, on an unpublished project that left both contemptuous of the other.  By the 1920s, she commanded $50 per hour for her astrological services, at a time when annual average salaries were about $1200...
Evangeline Adams, astrologer to Kings

Carroll Righter followed Adams' career strategy after giving up the law.  Where she was the first astrologer with a nationwide radio show (with as many as 150,000 fan letters per episode in 1930), he was first astrologer to write a syndicated horoscope column for American newspapers.  There were 200 of these papers at the time of his death, including the Alexandria Daily Town Talk which served my Louisiana hometown.  Like Adams, Righter cultivated a fashionable celebrity clientele, advising Princess Grace of Monaco, and future President Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy on career moves and personal matters.  Righter reportedly advised the Reagans for 45 years...  
On second thought, perhaps scientists would do better to seek out afterlife comments from Evangeline Adams.  She reportedly advised her clients to move any money they had in the stock market to safer investments before October 29, 1929...
I personally have not seen verification of Miss Adams' stock market prediction but there is no doubt she was acquitted (again) on charges of fortune telling in 1914 after challenging the judge to provide her with the birth data of an anonymous individual whose character and life history she would analyze based on the horoscope.  She did so and did so accurately.  Her supporters claim an astonished judge (whose son was the subject of the reading) dramatically announced to the court that Miss Evangeline Adams raised astrology to the status of a science...
Evangeline Adams: Venus

Adams apparent success as an astrologer has rarely been duplicated.  And is not likely to be repeated since there are no set rules for interpreting horoscope data.  Rarely can be found two astrologers who agree upon how, for instance, "Moon trine Jupiter" or "Sun in conjunction with Pluto in the Fifth House shapes human character traits or affects events in the world.  Nor do they agree on things like determining the boundaries of the Fifth House...

Modern astrologers are not determinists and say planetary positions simply influence us but do not compel behavior on our part.  A pattern of Jupiter and Saturn that traditionally signifies an earthquake may refer to an actual physical disaster afflicting a remote island near Indonesia-- or it may signify an intellectual upheaval on the island or somewhere in Asia.  The scientist shakes his head at such a statement but it is offers insight into why astrology may bedevil rationalists a thousand years hence...
Evangeline Adams: The Moon

Astrology tells us we are unique, part of a universe governed by laws.  Modern science does the same.  Astrology goes a step farther, appealing to the part of us looking for purposeful lives and meaningful creations in somewhat easily digested form.  To look at one's natal chart, the position of planets and constellations in relation to one's place and time of birth, is to encounter an apparently complicated visual mantra suggesting keys to a fulfilled and perfect life if we but decode the image before us, ways to foresee  and minimize calamity...

It is our secret identity, a way to find the Bruce King hidden behind our Zolar...
Birth Chart for Zolar, aka Bruce King

Note: All images located through Google Images without source information except as follows: Drawings of Venus and The Moon from Astrology: Your Place In The Sun, Evangeline Adams, New York, 1927 (Dodd, Mead, and Company); photographs Bruce King/Zolar and Bruce King natal horoscope from "Zolar: The Men Behind The Crown" Christina C Santos, 2003 (http://consciousevolution.com/metamorphosis/0304/zolar0304.htm); photograph Carroll Righter from "Carroll Righter Tribute" (http://www.solsticepoint.com/astrologersmemorial/righter.html); Evangeline Adams from Wikipedia

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Journey to the Desert's Edge, Part Three

Note: this is the third in a series of occasionally appearing entries focusing on deserts in general and the drylands of West Texas in particular



The nature of a place is seen in what the soil nourishes when there is little or no human interference...



Such was the philosophy guiding Forrest Shreve.  An ecologist before the term became fashionable, Shreve became familiar with plant life, first in his native Maryland and then later on the island of Jamaica, before taking a job with the Carnegie Institution's Desert Botanical Laboratory in Tucson.  His great gift to those of us enamored of North America's drylands was a 1942 article and map dividing the continent's arid regions into four distinct ecosystems based on the plant life in each region:  the Great Basin, the Mojave, the Sonoran, the Chihuahuan...

Forrest Shreve's Desert Country, 1942


Shreve's proposal represented a semi-major shift in scientific thinking about the deserts of the Lower 48.  A few years after Wladimir Koeppen divided dry regions into arid and semi-arid places, a 1906 New York Times article touting work at the Carnegie lab noted "two great desert areas"-- a Sonora-Nevadan and a Chihuahuan-- had been delineated in North America by geographers, botanists, and meteorologists... 



As Shreve rambled across the dusty Southwest and northern Mexico, he noticed some species grew almost everywhere he traveled but others sprouted only in certain areas.  (The reason for such localized growth, we now know has much to do with adaptations to varying soils types, rainfall patterns, and seasonal temperature fluctuations.)  Creosote bush pops up from sun baked west Texas to bone dry California but the desert traveler finds saguaro cactus towering over gravelly hillsides in northern and central Arizona and parts of California.  Tarbush fails to thrive where that magnificent giant flourishes.  Its home appears to be only in southwest Texas, southern New Mexico, and a tiny corner of southeastern Arizona...       

Forrest Shreve, circa 1940


Approximately 1500 years ago, native people abandoned their settlements on the upper elevations of Tumamoc Hill about a hundred miles from the last Arizona tarbush stands.  Exactly why they left a place their ancestors had lived for a thousand years is unknown but archaeologists tell us they began using the mesa as a place of ritual, ceremony, and religious pilgrimage.  The base of Tumamoc Hill later served the Hohokam who came after these people.  It became a farming area and agave plantation centuries before Columbus visited the New World.  By the late 19th century, Tumamoc was a grazing site for the cattle and goats of white settlers, site of a basalt quarry, and home to a hospital directed by Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet...



Tumamoc enters our story about desert plants thanks to questions Frederick V Coville asked himself in 1891 while he explored Death Valley, hundreds of miles away from a barren corner of southeastern Arizona.  How could plants survive the heat and aridity of such a hellish place and how could there possibly be such a variety of things growing in an area so desolate?  He pondered these mysteries for more than a decade...

Tumamoc Hill


In 1902, a gift to the nation from its richest immigrant, a man considered second only to John D Rockefeller of Standard Oil Company fame in terms of personal wealth, helped Coville begin searching for answers... 



Andrew Carnegie came to the United States as a boy.  Born into a family of weavers, the young Scotsman found work in 1848 at age 13 as a cotton mill bobbin boy.  He considered himself lucky to change large spools for twelve hours a day for six days a week for less than two cents for an hour.  Young Andrew was ambitious.  He left the mill to become a messenger for a telegraph company, paying attention to every detail of his work and the financial transactions conducted by wire.  His job offered free passes to a local theater troupe's performances of Shakespeare's plays.  Carnegie took advantage of this as well as a chance to improve his education when a well-to-do Colonel James Anderson opened his personal library of 400 volumes to poor lads hoping to better their station... 



Bold yet wise in his investment strategy, Carnegie rose rapidly in the business world and ultimately became the prime organizer of the United States Steel Corporation, a man whose fortune was estimated at around thirty million dollars when he died in 1919.  It would have been larger but he'd already given $350,000,000, possibly a bit more, to charitable causes.  Carnegie, who limited personal expenses to no more than $50,000 yearly, viewed himself as a trustee of wealth meant to better mankind, most especially the working poor who toiled long and hard and saw but very little for their labor...   

Andrew Carnegie with canine companion


Encouraged by President Theodore Roosevelt, Carnegie funded an Institution whose mission was to increase educational opportunities and spread scientific knowledge.  Frederick Coville who had asked himself questions about plants in Death Valley was now chief Botanist for the United States Department of Agriculture.  He applied to the Institution for a grant to learn how plants survive hot, dry environments.  The Carnegie approved $8000 for this laudable endeavor, directing Daniel T MacDougal to assist Coville in finding a suitable location for the necessary laboratory.  The pair jostled through the southwest and Mexico until they chanced upon Tumamoc Hill near the bustling city of Tucson...



MacDougall and Coville established their facility in October 1903.  Devoted strictly to desert vegetation studies, it attracted Professor Volney Spalding who had taught the world's first true course in forestry at the University of Michigan more than twenty years earlier.  Spalding brought more to the Desert Botanical Laboratory than his personal expertise.  He brought his wife Effie.  Academically qualified in her own right, she published Tumamoc's first research paper in 1905 on the topic of how saguaro cactus stems expand to hold water made available by rain and contract as the succulent uses moisture...



Forrest Shreve found his way to the Desert Botanical Laboratory in 1910.  The Sonoran landscape he trekked more than a century ago no longer exists just as the western Concho Valley of Texas which Vernon Bailey and Harry Oberholser traveled in 1899 and 1901 remains only in photographs taken during their expeditions...

Western Tom Green County, Texas, near Twin Buttes, 1901


Desertification is a phenomenon puzzling to those of us who don't fret over the condition of the drylands.  It is the reason Shreve would no longer feel entirely at home in the empty land outside Tucson and why John Chisum-- known to many of us courtesy of John Wayne's movie about him--- might refuse to believe he'd grazed cattle in the Concho Valley on his way to building a ranching empire in Lincoln County, New Mexico.  How can an arid or semi-arid environment, desert by definition, become a wasteland less capable of sustaining life?  Climatic changes (severe drought or a long term increase in aridity, for instance) plays a role but not as significantly as a person might think.  Desert plants, after all, adapt not only to dryness but erratic rainfalls in the hard country...

Western Tom Green County, Texas, near Twin Buttes, 2011


Human activity usually works hand-in-hand with long dry spells to make arid lands even more desert like.  When I feel the personal need for a tirade, I rant about overgrazing rangeland and farming areas with poor soils and erratic rainfalls.  Mining operations also take their toll.  Desert environments are the product of tens of thousands of years that have a created a delicate ballet of plant and animal life on a stage of surprisingly fragile soils.  Even the simplest human activity can disrupt Mother Nature's dance.  Towards the end of the 19th century, settlers decided to help desert streams and rivers keep their banks safe from erosion.  They planted salt cedar...



Roads to ecological hell can be paved with good intentions, the grandchildren of these settlers learned after salt cedar established itself along desert waterways.  The genus Tamarix is native to the drier regions of Eurasia and Africa.  It is rarely damaged by the occasional wildfires sweeping across southwestern Texas.  Extremely long taproots and adventitious roots that form in unusual places of the plant guarantee its ability to drain both nearby streams and underground water sources dry.  Making our non-native salt cedar an even more ideal candidate for environmental disaster comes with its ability to take salt from deep groundwater, distribute it throughout its leaves, and then deposit it on the soil surface surrounding the plant without causing damage to itself.  Good for salt cedar, not so good for native vegetation...

Salt cedar, O C Fisher Reservoir, San Angelo, Texas.  A single
plant can lose 200 gallons daily through evapotranspiration, a
charateristic that is not useful in the semi-arid West Texas desert


How has this non-native plant and the proliferation of H2O guzzling native mesquites brought on by overgrazing affected my part of Southwest Texas?  The Concho River proper actually begins in the city of San Angelo at the junction of three smaller streams imaginatively named the North Concho, the Middle Concho, and the South Concho.  In the 1850s, all three were perennial streams-- each one of them deep, fast running, and somewhat dangerous...

 

About 50 years ago, the North and Middle Concho began showing fairly serious signs of distress after a seven year dry spell compounded by farming and damaged rangeland.  Today, the South Concho still flows but is akin to Uncle Joe from the old television show Petticoat Junction-- movin' kind of slow.  According to the United States Geological Survey, the Middle Concho gave up its last measurable discharge in June, 2009.  I personally have not seen water in the North Concho except for short-lived puddles after rains for more than year now...

Salt cedar (Tamarix spp) has wreaked havoc on the Concho,
Pecos, and Rio Grande riparian habitats of southwestern Texas


Forrest Shreve's Sonoran Desert has seen its own changes.  Human activity promoted the spread of buffalo grass, more at home in semi-arid desert grasslands than in arid deserts.  Areas that were once bare soil are now carpets of short, dried grasses waiting for lightning strikes or a tossed cigarette to create a raging inferno on land that once had no fear of fire...


North Concho River, 2011





Note: All images located through Google Images without source information except as follows: Forrest Shreve circa 1940 and North American Deserts According to Shreve (1942) from The Encyclopedia of Earth (eo.org); Tumamoc Hill from the University of Arizona News; Twin Buttes Area circa 1901 from Texas Natural History: A Century of Change by David J Schmidley (Texas Tech University Press, 2002); Salt Cedar Invasion Map from southwestclimatechange.org; Twin Buttes Area circa 2011 and North Concho River by San Angelo State Park and Salt Cedar at O C Fisher Reservoir by Louis R Nugent.              

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Reflections On River City



"The past is never dead.  It isn't even past."-- William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun



My young days were fortunate...


I lived in a magical place of beautiful old homes and friendly people... 

Third Street-- former commercial heart of Alexandria


There were other places in Louisiana besides Alexandria, of course.  New Orleans, La Ville transported to America, was a little more than three hours southeastward.  U S Highway 71 took you there and passed through Baton Rouge which took its name from a reddish cypress pole marking the boundary which separated the hunting grounds of the Houma from those of the Bayou Goula.  The road wound past oil refineries, ships along the wide Mississippi, cotton fields, and sugar plantations, to another magical city of voodoo, red beans and rice, and the Sunday Times-Picayune...

Postcard featuring the Old City Hall and Hotel Bentley


Alexandria then sat and yet sits between two worlds, Protestant North Louisiana and the Catholic South.  Appropriate enough for a city that can be located by looking at a map of Louisiana and confidently placing a finger in the center...

The Providence Academy, Elliot Street


This regional cultural division is not quite as pronounced today.  Local folk shift around in search of work.  Boys from the north head south to take jobs on oil rigs.  Girls with soft French accents find themselves in the bustle of Shreveport offices, a town more Texas than Louisiana.  Out-of-state technicians and managers arrive sporadically to operate manufacturing facilities.  They bring a nomadic sameness of values, begging false culinary gods to deliver them from gumbo and guide them safely to Golden Arches.  But in my youngest days, a politician asked crowds to vote for Michael Ryan in Shreveport and Michel Ree'an in Lafayette...

Guaranty Bank and Trust Building


Different paths to the same salvation may symbolize the distinction between the two Louisianas but they merely point to other, perhaps older, cultural clashes.  Men born in the British Isles did not forget wars with continental France and Spain merely because they crossed an ocean.  A person listening to the radio in Winnfield knows whereof Roy Acuff speaks when he sings of lonely mounds of clay and wrecks on the highway where none prayed and the only sounds heard were the groans of those dying in twisted metal frames.  He may speak with grudging admiration of the Marksville resident who seems continuously happy and apparently has naught to worry over save wine, dancing, and chasing pretty girls.  Maybe ancient Roman ghosts still battle ancient Celtic ghosts in the souls of those born long after they drifted off to Hades.  Even the land itself makes for differences among men and things they must value.  Casting nets on Gulf waters brings different concerns than plowing hardscrabble red clay...



Settlement around my hometown dates to the late 1700s when merchants and farmers clustered around a Spanish post that guarded a section of rough water in the Red River.  By the time the river reaches the Mississippi, it becomes a wide and powerful stream.  Its birthplace is a trickle of liquid in the dry desolation of the Texas Panhandle.  The rapids by the military outpost gave their name to Rapides Parish, alternately French and Spanish territory, ultimately part of the United States.  The gathering of store owners served as a stop on the way to Natchitoches, oldest permanent town in an 828,000 square mile wilderness and northern terminus of El Camino Real, a seemingly endless highway that ran all the way to Mexico City...

Federal Courthouse and Post Office, on Murray Street, built
by the Works Project Administration during Franklin Delano
Roosevelt's presidency


Before France got Louisiana back in time to sell it to Tom Jefferson, the King of Spain granted land to one Alexander Fulton, a Pennsylvanian.  In 1805, Fulton and a business partner laid out the town of Alexandria.  The official story goes it was named for Fulton's daughter.  But, at 31° 17' North Latitude, its location seems suspiciously close to the 31° 12' North Latitude of an Egyptian metropolis of the same name raised to classical glory by Alexander the Great...

Murray Street Bridge, circa 1911


The river separating Anglo Louisiana from Franco Louisiana rolls through a relatively flat plain upon which Alexandria sits 75' above sea level.  Pine forests, with some hardwood stands, are found to the north and south and east and west.  Bayous meander through the city limits.  One flows a couple blocks from the house where I grew up.  Summer day strolls to trace its lazy route meant sweat, chirping crickets, battle with mosquitoes, and the wistful sad scent of magnolias and honeysuckle.  A humid subtropical climate with average rains of 60" dispersed in relatively equal measures throughout the year encouraged the citizenry to garden and plant flowers even where there are no bayous...

Downtown Alexandria seen from the Red River


Rich land and a perfect location on a major tributary of the Mississippi made Rapides Parish one of the richest county units in the entire nation as the United States moved toward fracturing itself into a Union and a Confederacy.  Unfortunately, this wealth was not measured solely by land and crops but also by the value attached to those enslaved to work the soil and the crops growing on it.  Alexandria would be occupied fairly early during the Civil War and consumed by flames of still disputed origin as Union forces left.  Legacies of slavery and racial division remain, I suspect.  Rebel flags on porches and pickups dot pockets of Alexandria and Rapides Parish...

Union forces marching through Alexandria, an early target of
northern forces, due to its role as a key port of the Red River


In the tradition of man, destruction is followed by rebuilding.  Alexandria and Rapides Parish followed custom and re-emerged as prosperous if not relatively isolated parts of the American South... 

One of Alexandria's loveliest houses of worship, this Reform
movement synagogue was lost to fire in 1952
The Steamer, Red River, circa 1900


Its history became one of colorful characters and events as befits a city only slightly known outside its own part of the state. The most significant of those events, at least from a national perspective, might include the Louisiana Maneuvers conducted in the late summer of 1941 as the United States Army prepared itself to join Europe's war against Hitler.  Approximately 500,000 troops assigned to 19 divisions simulated a war on another continent on a simulated battlefield of 3400 square miles.  Participants included some prominent future Allied commanders-- Dwight D Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, George S Patton.  Another officer, an obscure second lieutenant named Henry Kissinger, would in his later days be counted among the diplomatic giants of the 20th Century...
Lobby of the Hotel Bentley, now facing an uncertain future,
one of the grandest of the Grand Hotels of the American South



A true Alexandrian knows the city would have been only an ordinary small town without a colorful and often eccentric citizenry.  One of these was Joseph A Bentley, lumber magnate and banker.  Local folklore has it the former Pennsylvanian built the stately hotel bearing his name when another lodging house refused to allow him to bring his dog into its restaurant.  Should the enumeration include a local lawyer who owned a radio station and read flying saucer stories culled from pages of the National Enquirer during the noon lunch hour?  Perhaps, a mayor who waged bitter war against the "Shadow Government" of Alexandria and Rapides Parish?  My own father was named a member of this band of nefarious malefactors which included a newspaper publisher who set the mayor upon a lifelong path of righteous vengeance when he borrowed a pencil in the second grade and failed to return it...

Hotel Bentley


Maybe the magic of my hometown, in the end, becomes things more personal and important than historical events or prominent citizens, whether sane or not quite right.  True magic lies inside miracles hidden in ordinary moments of life such as the smell of ozone dancing in the air as the sky darkens and lightning flashes and the first drops of summer rain fall.  No wizard has power to create memories of a nurturing and loving family, grandparents with tales of the sin and hope of a Reconstructed South and Jewish life in turn-of-the-century New York, the tantalizing smell of peanuts roasting at the Kress dime store candy counter, heading downtown to the Modern Record Shop, burgers and malts at Hopper's Drive-In, chilly nights at the parish fair and in the stands of the high school football stadium, the smile of a cheerleader...  

Commerce during the World War I years



Note: all images located through Google Images with no owner or author information provided except as noted in captions or on the image itself.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Journey To The Desert's Edge, Part Two

 Note: this is the second in a series of occasionally appearing entries focusing on deserts in general and the drylands of West Texas in particular

"West of Fort Concho, it (mesquite) becomes dwarfed into a shrub of very large roots...." 
S B Buckley, State Geologist of Texas, 1876

Rangeland, Tom Green County, Texas


Wladimir Koeppen's great work, a massive analysis of the world's temperature and precipitation zones, failed to address the quality of mesquite in Southwest Texas but nevertheless still ranks as one of science's true leaps forward...

Ah, the history of climate classification.  A subject rivaled only by painting a mud fence brown with its potential for heart-pounding thrills and chills.  Let's ease our way into the excitement...

The New American Desk Encyclopedia serves me well.  A thick paperback, it's just the right size for a blogger who remembers there had been a Civil War battle at Pea Ridge but doesn't remember Pea Ridge is in northwestern Arkansas.  And the NADE has a fine little article about the dry country that touches on plant and animal life in the desert and the imbalance of rain and evapotranspiration.  It notes approximately one-third of the earth is desert, a total that must be accurate since it agrees with Wikipedia...

Another paperback that does right by me is The Deserts of the Southwest by Peggy Larson.  Ms Larson is highly regarded in her field and worked at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson for many years.  Visitors to the city, by the way, won't waste their limited vacation time should they decide to spend a day exploring the Museum's 21 acres.  Strolling down two miles of pathway, one safely encounters more than 300 species of animals and 1300 varieties of desert plants-- mountain lions and gila monsters and eagles, creosote bushes and saguaros... 

Arizon-Sonora Desert Museum Brochure


Larson's book delightfully takes us on a tour across America's deserts.  Even a person who doesn't know isobars from temperature inversions can discuss dry climates intelligently after reading a few pages.   She says deserts cover about one-sixth of the planet...





This disagreement about how much of the world is desert... one-third or one-sixth... has a lot to do with a climate classification system officially unveiled in1900 by Wladimir Koeppen, originally a botanist, who spent his life making sense of the world's patchwork quilt patterns of rain and heat.  The dispute comes down to a simple question: how much rainfall does a desert receive in an average year?  Is it under 10" or less than 20"?  Are deserts simply empty tracts of sand interrupted with the occasional shrub or can they also be landscapes dotted with clumps of short grasses concealing yucca and cactus...



Koeppen's biographers say he was a small and courtly man who worked tirelessly to help underprivileged children.  An aristocrat, he ignored a tradition allowing him to place "von" before his last name.  His physician grandfather traveled to Russia at the behest of Catherine the Great who employed him to improve the country's public health system.  In the next generation, his father served Alexander II as a geographer and historian and received a country home on the Crimean coast from the Tsar of all the Russias for his services...

Wladimir Koeppen


Born in St Petersburg in 1845, Wladimir spent his childhood exploring the countryside adjoining the family estate.  He became fascinated by differences between plants that grew on the nearby plains and those he found by the shoreline and in the more distant mountains.  He made it his mission to unlock the mysteries behind the geography of the plant world and its relation to climate...

Wladimir Koeppen, PhD,  had given himself quite a challenge.  Few scientists paid attention to the subject after Aristotle divided Gaea into Torrid Zones, Temperate Zones, and Frigid Zones in the 4th Century BCE.  Edmund Halley, of comet fame, did study wind patterns affecting shipping routes in the 1700s.  George Hadley, a geographer who attempted to create a star map for the southern hemisphere, tried to account for some discrepancies in Halley's theories.  In 1817, the distinguished Baron von Humboldt created a world map showing regional temperature ranges.  No map of global rainfall patterns existed before 1882 when a chap named Loomis correlated the data to make one...



Sifting through the information available to him, Koeppen noticed five basic climate types corresponded to Earth's precipitation and thermal patterns.  It is almost an insult to his research to simply say he divided his "Dry Climate" into Arid (or desert) regions that saw an average of 10" rain or less per year and Semi-Arid (or steppe) locales receiving between 10" and 20" worth of precipitation...

Modified Koeppen Classification System


[Steppe, incidentally, is a troublesome word of Russian origin, that refers to grassland plains in semi-arid climates.  No exact English equivalent conveys the sense of the word although short-grass prairie comes very close.  An increasing number of scientists accept the term "desert grassland" to distinguish the grassy stretches of western Texas, southern New Mexico, and southern and central Arizona from cooler latitude shortgrass prairies.]   

The Koeppen system soon became (and remains) a standard way of describing Earth's climates.  It filled a major gap in the field.  Geography textbook writers appreciated it for its completeness and for providing school children with an easy to remember definition of a desert.  Cartographers liked the way it allowed them to draw fairly uncomplicated maps without having to use too many colors...


But, elsewhere in the world of publish or perish, it didn't take other scientists long to note minor flaws in the Koeppen system, especially its analysis of dry climates ...

After the rains


One flaw takes us back to southeastern Arizona and Tucson with an annual average of just under 12" of precipitation.  A strict reading of Koeppen unceremoniously dumps "The Old Pueblo" from lists of our nation's desert metropolises.  Yet, the town is clearly a dry place and likely to be described by the vast majority of residents and visitors as desert...



Half a mile down the road


To be fair to Koeppen, it should be noted this flaw is based on a factor that Koeppen recognized as existing but one he could not adequately analyze because of a lack of available data.  Desert aridity results not merely from lack of rain and high temperatures  and winds that seem to never quit blowing but also thanks to the amount of water lost to evapotranspiration...



[For the non-botanically inclined, evapotranspiration is the "loss of water from the soil both by evaporation and by transpiration from the plants growing thereon."  A simple way to define transpiration is to think of it as the water vapor escaping through plant leaves.]



One of Koeppen's critics, C W Thornthwaite, published "An Approach toward a Rational Classification of Climate" in the Geographical Review for January 1948.  Discussing "potential evapotranspiration," Thornthwaite cited H C Trumble's research in southern Australia which proved an area becomes moisture-deficient when demand for water is three times higher than the amount available through rain and snow...

Arid and Semi-arid Desert Regions (in Yellow)


Exactly what does this mean to someone who lives in a place like San Angelo, Texas?  Using 54 years of data collected by the Irrigation Technology Center of Texas A&M university, we learn the city has an annual average potential evapotranspiration rate of 71.34" with annual average rainfalls of 19.20".  The country around the western Concho Valley is hot and dry enough to burn away over seventy inches of water in a typical year.  Less than a third of that amount is normally available to sustain plant and animal life...

The aridity of the Concho Valley increases each westward mile across the Lone Star State.  By the time a traveler reaches El Paso, he has come to a place with average rains of 8" and average potential evapotranspiration rates of nearly 80"...



[Some writers, such as Michael Barbour and Norman Christensen who discuss the vegetation of North America in Flora of North America, would consider neither city as being located in a desert environment based on a definition that sets an average of 120mm (roughly 4 3/4") or less as the upper limit for "true desert" precipitation]

Peveril Meigs, offering an alternative to Koeppen and Thornthwaite, generated another approach to climate equally (if not more so) complex in its mathematics.  He suggested dividing dry areas into three categories: extremely arid, arid, and semi-arid.  Based on the way Meigs envisioned drylands, San Angelo might be described as a semi-arid and El Paso as arid ...

A land of yucca and cactus


Today, most scientists define deserts as places where potential water loss through evapotranspiration exceeds (or significantly exceeds) available water.  They also often employ Meigs' terminology and describe them as extremely arid, arid, and semi-arid.  But there is no universal agreement among academicians on when dry lands become deserts, their exact boundaries, or the amount of rain they receive.  Jeremy M B Smith, knowledgeable enough to discuss the subject for Encyclopedia Britannica,  for instance, contends certain areas may see as much as 24" of annual average precipitation and still be considered deserts...


Personally, I am inclined to agree with Smith when he says "Deserts are varied and variable environments, and it is impossible to arrive at a concise definition that satisfies every case . However, their most fundamental characteristic is a shortage of available moisture for plants, resulting from an imbalance between precipitation and evapotranspiration. This situation is exacerbated by considerable variability in the timing of rainfall, low atmospheric humidity, high daytime temperatures, and winds"...



Much can also be said for practical definitions.  Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, says a desert is "arid barren land, especially:  a tract incapable of supporting any considerable population without an artificial water supply."  Other pragmatic sorts argue the dry country begins where non-irrigated farming is a fool's game and land is best used to graze livestock over wide areas...


And, for some, the desert begins where mesquites become shrubs with large roots...

West Texas Barrens





Note: Brochure illustration is from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, circa 1996.  Photograph of Wladimir Koeppen, circa 1921, by Friedrich Becks, was located through Google Images and Wikipedia with no additional source information.  Map of arid and semi-arid deserts from Reader's Digest Great World Atlas, Reader's Digest Association, Pleasantville, 1968. Map of modified Koeppen System from Man's Domain: A Thematic Atlas of the World, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1968. All other photographs copyright by Louis R Nugent.  Publication data: Deserts of the Southwest, Peggy Larson, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1977; New American Desk Encyclopedia, Signet Books, New York, 1982;  Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition, Merriam-Webster, Springfield, 1993.  S B Buckley quote from Second Annual Report of the Geological and Agricultural Survey of Texas, Houston, 1876.