Texana Book Reviews -- March 1997
(by Mike Cox)


Geo-Texas: From Fossils to Meteorites
(March 28, 1997)

Anyone looking down from nearby Castle Mountain would have seen five men -- their heads bowed in seeming reverence -- picking their way through the catclaw and cactus in the vast flat on the western side of Castle Gap southwest of Odessa.

For generations, this landmark 13 miles east of the Pecos -- once a rest stop on a travel route that was the equivalent of an interstate highway -- has attracted treasure hunters. We were merely the latest visitors and certainly won't be the last.

A fortune in stolen gold supposedly is hidden somewhere in this gap, and maybe a Spanish treasure for good measure, but we were not specifically looking for these legendary caches. Indians frequented this area long before travelers of European decent started using the gap, but we were not even necessarily looking for ancient flint projectile points.

The treasure we sought was not manmade. We were looking for little pieces of extraterrestrial objects -- meteorites.

Austin writer Jim Kunetka, whose works (the novel Warday and a non-fiction book on Los Alamos, N.M. among others) have tended to center around things nuclear, says meteorites are the "gold" of the late '90s. The popularity of these little pieces of asteroids and planets has, okay, skyrocketed since scientists reported last summer that they believed they had detected evidence of bacteria in meteorites of Martian heritage. That means life once existed beyond Earth and argues strongly that it could still exist elsewhere.

Kunetka says martian meteorites go for as much as $300 a gram and the price ascent is continuing.

Only 30 or so miles away as the dust blows from Castle Gap is the so-called Odessa crater, a site where a large meteor crashed to earth an estimated 20,000 years ago.

Back at camp with a small bag of metallic-looking specimens and a few marine life fossils, I settled down for an afternoon rest with a copy of Eric R. Swanson's Geo Texas: A Guide to the Earth Sciences. Published by Texas A&M University Press, the 208-page paperback sells for $15.95 in paperback, $35 in hardcover.

The author, an associate professor of geology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, devotes most of nine pages to Texas meteorites and a dozen pages to fossils. As I cooled off from my mid-day expedition into the greasewood in search of inanimate extraterrestrials, hoping I'd struck "gold" with my finds, I read about meteorites and fossils.

I learned that two of the more significant known large meteor impact sites are not far from Castle Gap, at least not by West Texas standards.

In addition to the Odessa crater, which actually is the location of four major impacts, there is the Sierra Madera site in the Glass Mountains about 20 miles south of Fort Stockton. According to Swanson, scientists believe the impact there was even bigger than the one near what is now Odessa.

At night, we can see the shimmering lights of Fort Stockton from 34 miles away. The celestial fireworks caused by either of these ancient strikes would easily have been visible from our campsite in the gap. Surely, I reasoned as I studied Swanson's book, some small pieces from one or the other of these impacts had been scattered around Castle Gap.

Geo-Texas is an excellent overview of the physical aspects of Texas, from its geology to oceanography. Because of Texas' size, there is plenty for the student of the so-called Earth Sciences to study. In addition to being the favorite meteorite target of all 50 states, according to Swanson's book, Texas has the most caves, the most tornadoes and the greatest 24-hour rainfall total on record (29.05 inches at Albany on Aug. 4, 1978.)

Meanwhile, I'll let you know if the dark brownish objects I collected near Castle Gap are really meteorites or naturally occurring rocks with some iron in them, sort of non-glittering fool's gold.


New Books on Old Spanish Texas
(March 21, 1997)

Except at theme parks, football stadiums and museums which display all of Texas' flags, the Spanish flag has not flown over Texas since 1810.

Though the date the Spanish influence over Texas officially ended in a revolution that gave birth to the Republic of Mexico is permanently fixed in time, the effect on our culture continues to this day.

And historians are continuing to make exciting new discoveries about these first Europeans to have an impact on Texas, the people who made the first maps of Texas, built Texas' first permanent structures -- some still surviving today -- brought the first written law, the Spanish language and the first horses and cattle. The Spanish seeded much of what is Texas' culture.

One of the more important contributions to our growing understanding of Spain's role in Texas is an impressive book published by the Texas State Historical Association, Imaginary Kingdom: Texas as Seen By The Rivera and Rubi Military Expeditions, 1727 and 1767.

Edited and with an introduction by Jack Jackson, and annotated by Bill Foster, the 272-page book sells for $29.95.

The book features the annotated diaries of Pedro de Rivera and the Marques de Rubi, two Spanish military officials who trekked across Texas to prepare detailed inspection reports for the Spanish crown. Neither diary had ever been translated into English before publication of this book. In fact, Rubi's diary was only discovered in 1989 when it was found in a large private collection of Spanish material donated to the University of Texas.

One of the principal concerns of Rubi was the Indian situation in Texas. The University of Oklahoma Press has recently reprinted one of the best studies of the clash of cultures in early Texas, Elizabeth A.H. John's Storms Brewed in Other Men's Worlds: The Confrontation of Indians, Spanish, and French in the Southwest, 1540-1795.

First published in 1975, this second edition features a new preface and afterword. The 805-page book is available in trade paperback at $24.95.

Also now available in paperback is Jesus F. de la Teja's San Antonio de Bexar: A Community on New Spain's Northern Frontier. Published by the University of New Mexico Press, this is a well-written, award-winning history of early San Antonio. The 288-page book sells for $18.95.

Fascinating reading, but at times as dense as the law it discusses, is The Legal Culture of Northern New Spain, 1700-1810. Also from the University of New Mexico Press, the 227-page book by Charles R. Cutter sells for $39.95.

In describing punishments common in Spanish Texas, the author briefly -- and tantalizingly -- touches on one of Texas' earliest high profile murder cases. One Rafael Gutierrez was eventually executed for a string of crimes including two murders (one of the victims was his wife, who he also tortured with burning corn husks), robbery, cattle rustling, adultery, breaking jail and assault.

Spanish prosecutors meticulously detailed their case against Gutierrez, even drawing an outline in their official report the knife used in one of the murders.

Two other recently published books have more to do with Mesoamerican history than the Southwest, but they add to our understanding of the complicated Spanish culture during the early years of Spain's presence in the New World: The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geograficas by Barbara E. Mundy (University of Chicago Press, 281 pages, $40) and The Encomenderos of New Spain, 1521-1555 by Robert Himmerich y Valencia (University of Texas Press, 364 pages, $19.95 in paperback.)

Several of the maps depicted in Mundy's book are held at the University of Texas' Benson Latin American Collection.

None of these books are light reading. They are strong new tools for those interested in digging deeper into Texas' early Spanish history, but they are not for someone merely interested in an overview of this formative period.


Revisiting Your Favorite Books
(March 14, 1997)

Long before the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was available on videotape, a friend had seen the film 18 times the old-fashioned way -- by paying for a theater ticket. He reports that he's probably seen Lonesome Dove as many times or more by now, thanks to videotape.

So far as I know, however, this same friend has only read Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer-Price winning novel about two ex-Texas Rangers who drive a herd of cattle from Lonesome Dove, Texas to Montana only once.

Some people, clearly, can not get too much of a good thing. My friend has opted for the screen version of his favorite stories, but there are others, I am sure, who have read Lonesome Dove -- a novel that one enthralled reader called the Gone With the Wind of Texas -- more than once.

How common the re-reading of book is, I do not know. I'd guess not very, given all the various media competing for our attention these days. "Re-reading," if that is the best description of this phenomenon, is not a category that shows up in indexes.

So, in the absence of supporting material, we'll build this contemplation from the ground up. To start with a definition, a re-reader is someone who at some point after a first reading, revisits favorite books for pleasure or inspiration. (Going repeatedly to a dictionary or other reference source doesn't count in this discussion. Apples and oranges.)

Several reasons for re-reading come to mind:

  • You enjoyed a book so much the first time, you want to repeat the pleasure.

  • You feel that a book read long ago must have had a profound influence on your life, so you go back to see exactly what it was about it that made such an impression. (Caution: Tastes change -- in books, movies and other things. When I saw John Wayne's The Alamo in 1960, I felt my life was complete. The next time I saw the film, as an adult, the movie's flaws were evident. I was not nearly as impressed as I had been as a sixth grader.)

  • Some works are just too rich for total comprehension in one reading. "Three times in my life I have read through Shakespeare and Goethe from end to end," Leo Tolstoy once observed. "And I never could make out in which their charm consisted."

The late Fred Gipson, author of the classic novel Old Yeller, a story of a boy and his dog, once confessed to me that he was guilty of re-reading his own book. But he didn't do it because he was in love with his own words. He was trying to figure out what had made his book so popular. If he could do that, he reasoned, he could use the technique again to write another best seller. If you can't steal from yourself, who can you steal from?

I certainly can think of books that have been pleasurable or important to me that I would re-read if I had the time: J. Frank Dobie's Coronado's Children, H. Allen Smith's Low Man on the Totem Pole (his recollections of his early years as a newspaper writer), Jules Verne's Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea, John Graves' Goodbye to a River, and many more. Any reader has his or her own list of favorites.

Unfortunately, re-reading is a luxury I have not often been able to indulge in. In fact, I don't know that I have ever re-read a book cover to cover, though I certainly have revisited portions of some books many times. I suspect re-reading is not all that common an occurrence.

I am constantly running across too many new books that I want to read, or discovering compelling old books that are new to me, to devote time to re-reading a book.

"What refuge," pondered Oliver Wendell Holmes, "is there for the victim who is possessed with the feeling that there are a thousand new books he ought to read, while life is only long enough for him to attempt to read a hundred."


Texas Gardening
(March 7, 1997)

I had hardly dug into Howard Garrett's new book on Texas plants before an idea blossomed: Maybe, instead of reading his book and taking his advice, I could just get him to come and evaluate the Urban Wilderness Area on the lot where my house is.

That, or I need to renew my efforts to receive federal funding to let my yard continue its development as a place that is sort of a cross between an elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta) burial ground and a young rain forest of weeds and failing 1950s-vintage Oriental ornamentals.

Plants for Texas, published by the University of Texas Press (192 pages, $39.95 in hardcover, $19.95 in paper) will inspire most weekend gardeners. It is an attractive book, as prety as the bluebonnets that grace a third of its cover, and full of useful information. Unlike many gardening books, this one covers all aspects of Texas gardening and all the plants common in Texas, from Abelia grandiflora to Zoysia japonica.

But I found it depressing. My yard is not likely to be featured on the author's weekly radio show, "The Natural Way." Unless maybe as an example of what not to do.

On Page 94, for instance, is Garrett's entry for Ligustrum japonicum, more commonly known as wax ligustrum. A native of the Orient, it is a traditional ornamental plant used for hedges and as a tall background plant.

"Wax ligustrum has been grossly misused as a foundation planting or low hedge," Garrett writes. "Not a high-quality plant."

Guess what ornamental plant grows in profusion along the eastern side of my house and along the back wooden fence? Hey, the grackles and bluejays like my ligustrum."

Desperately I flipped from the L's to the C;s in Garrett's book. What about the crape myrtle in my yard, I wondered.

Under crape myrtle I am advised to see Lagerstroemia, in the L's.

OK, Garrett likes this ornamental, also a native of the Far East. He cautions against trimming it back in winter, and the only problems the plant has are aphids, mildew and suckers. Looks like mine are planted too close together, though. And they grow into trees up to 25 feet tall. I thought they were just a pretty hedge.

On Page 35, Garrett discussed Bambusa. You know, bamboo. It's actually a grass, which makes sense, because that is how it has spread in my hard. Sometimes at night we hear strange, ape-like cries coming from the Bambusa jungle in the northeast corner of the back yard. Like the Birnan Woods marching on Dunsanane castle, it is slowly advancing on the house. But here's some good news: "Spreading can be conrolled by kicking over the shoots just as they emerge in the spring."

If like me, you are beginning to wonder why you live in a house surrounded by Oriental plants when you are not in the Orient and have begun considering going with native plants, Garrett has further advice: It is a mistake to assume that native plants are maintenance-free. "Natives, just like introduced plants, need to be planted properly and watered carefully," he writes.

No matter your gardening taste, Garrett suggests: Don't use artificial fertilizers and pesticides; increase the air, organic matter and rock minerals in the soil; use mulch; go for biodiversity and choose plants that are adaptive."

So, whether you want to stick with the traditional urban flora or go native, before you make the first trip to the nursery this spring, Garrett's book would make a good investment. It can be read in the shade or bright sunlight and doesn't need water, sandy loam, mulch, pruning, mowing or fertilizer. Maybe that's why my library seems to grow much better than the plants in my yard.


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