Sunday, July 18, 2010

My Land

It occurs to me that I have never properly introduced my land. Partly this is because I am only just getting to know it myself. When I bought the land last year, it was suffering from the worst drought ever recorded for central Texas, so few of the trees produced seed. Many of the deciduous trees and shrubs dropped their leaves.

Altamira, where I lived with my daughter for 5 years in the 1990's, is only a couple of miles from here, all uphill. I bought this land after the house I built at Altamira burned down (a Bluebonnet Electric pole fell down on a neighbor's land, and the transformer started the fire -- it was a very dry time of year, and the fire spread to my land). I didn't have time to build another house with my own hands, because I'm working in the city now, and besides, I'm not a very good carpenter. Altamira is not easily accessible from the county road. When I had guests there, I had to meet them at the county road, because everyone who tried to drive up to the house ended up getting stuck in the sand. You had to know exactly where the deep spots were, and drive very fast so the car or truck would sort of float across the sand.

I decided that if I wanted to use Altamira as a weekend home, I would have to make a real road and install some large tanks for storing rainwater. The Wilcox-Carrizo Aquifer is under Altamira, but it's 1100+ feet deep, so it's very expensive to drill a well. Also, the City of San Antonio will soon be piping water from the aquifer. I wouldn't be surprised to see metering of water taken from the aquifer by landowners who, supposedly, purchased water rights along with surface rights. When my daughter and I lived at Altamira, our sole source of water was this pond:

I made a small water treatment plant to flocculate and clarify the silty water. It made decent water for household use, but in drought years the pond would get terrifyingly low. In the drought of 1996, it became a big mud puddle. A Great Blue Heron would stop by every day to eat fish. It could wade all the way across the pond. We had to haul water from our neighbor's well in 55 gallon drums that year.

To build a road and rainwater tanks would cost about the same as buying a smaller tract of land with better access. So I decided to keep Altamira wild and build a house downhill, but close enough to Altamira that it would only take a few minutes to go from one place to the other. There's still a small cabin at Altamira that was upwind from the fire, so the place still feels a bit like home.

The highest land at Altamira is the second highest point in the area, perhaps in the county, being at the top of a sandstone ridge that runs from the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo) north of Laredo, northeast to Northern Louisiana, roughly parallel to the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The land there is classified as Post Oak Savannah, though when you are on the land it feels more like a forest because of the dense thickets of yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). The canopy consists of post oak (Quercus stellata), blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica), shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa), loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), and eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). I can walk down the hill from Altamira and encounter 3 distinct bioregions within less than a mile. Midway down the hill are trees such as mesquite and hackberry; at the bottom are pecan and live oak.

The Berry Farm consists of 15 acres. It was subdivided from a 54 acre tract, and since the western half of the 54 acre tract was in the flood plain, the owner subdivided the land into long, narrow strips, so every new tract would have some high ground. At the eastern edge of the Berry Farm, the soil is loamy sand, similar to the soil halfway down the hill from Altamira. The floodplain portion of the land is black clay, and there are live oaks and pecans growing there. Altamira is 160 acres, more than ten times the size of the Berry Farm, yet the Berry Farm has an amazingly greater diversity of plant species.

An old-timer who grew up around here told me that the 54 acre tract of land was used for growing cotton. I assume the cotton would have been rotated with milo (grain sorghum) or corn, which is a typical crop rotation in this area. I don't know what grew here before the land was cleared for farming.

Altamira was considered trash land, because of the nutrient-poor sandy soil, and was never used much by humans. There is evidence that people passed through -- stone spear heads from a long time ago, a mound of stones and assorted stuff that I found with a metal detector (barrel hoop, tip of a plow, leg of a metal stove) that mark the location of a small house -- from the piles of clay mixed with the stone, I assume it was an adobe house with a stone fireplace. Old timers told me that the house sat beside a Spanish road from the colonial period. The Spanish mined silver in the sand hills -- Kenny Mitchell, who's probably about my age and grew up here (in fact, he was good friends with the man who owned the 54 acre tract that the Berry Farm was carved out of), told me that when he was a kid, he and his friends found one of the mines and went down into it. Supposedly there was a mine on Altamira, but I never found one. It's possible it was hidden within a very dense thicket that I didn't penetrate.

The silver mining operations must not have amounted to much, because the land appears to have been pretty much undisturbed by people, unlike the Berry Farm land. I'd guess that the up-hill eastern part was probably Post Oak Savannah, with the flood plain part being Blackland Prairie creek bottom land. However, the banks of Tenney Creek, at the western end of the land, are sandy.

Tenney Creek begins near McMahan, about 5 miles from here, and flows generally south until it reaches, and becomes part of,  Plum Creek. Here are a couple of photos of Plum Creek flowing through blackland prairie, about 3 miles from here.  Tenney Creek is intermittent, depending on the amount of rainfall. It's flowing at the moment, but it was quite dry last summer.

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