Sunday, September 19, 2010

Living in the Wilderness

The first definition that pops up on Google under the search term "wilderness" is: "Wilderness or wildland is a natural environment on Earth that has not been significantly modified by human activity."

By this definition, the part of the central Texas sand hills where I built a house for my daughter and me qualifies as wilderness, even though the closest neighbor was only a mile and a quarter away. Our land is at the top of the Carrizo sandstone ridge that runs from south Texas through Louisiana and Arkansas, roughly parallel to the coast line of the Gulf of Mexico. The darker colored strip in the image below, labeled "outcrop" is known locally as the "sand hills" throughout most of its range (click on image to see the website from which I took it). 

The soil of Altamira consists of medium-coarse sand overlying red sandstone and clay. As the red color suggests, the iron content of the soil is high; there are other minerals, including uranium, lead, and silver. It's said that in colonial days, the Spanish dug several silver mines in the area. There are remnants of what appears to have been an adobe house with a sandstone fireplace and chimney next to a trail that is said to have been a portion of El Camino Real, that went from East Texas down into the main part of Mexico (I have no idea whether this story about the trail is true -- in maps I've seen of El Camino Real, the road looks as though it may have run through our land, but I would have expected the road to run along creek bottom land, not right up over the top of the ridge). Next to the path are the remnants of what appear to have been a small adobe house with a sandstone fireplace and chimney (evidence of the old house include a pile of stones and a large amount of clay on the surface of the sand, bits of pottery and china table wear, as well as stuff I found with a metal detector: part of a cast iron stove, a barrel hoop, odd bits of metal). The ruins of the old house, occasional stone spear heads, and an oil pipeline running through the center of the property, roughly parallel to the trail but a bit north of it, were the only signs that people had been on the land. 

According to a (very non-technical) book I have called Roadside Geology of Texas, the Carrizo outcrop was caused by sedimentary layer laid down in the Eocene period when the Gulf Coast was a couple hundred miles inland from its current location. A paper presented at the American Association of Petroleum Geologists Annual Convention, New Orleans, Louisiana, April 11-14, 2010, says: "Sandstone modal compositions and detrital zircon U‐Pb analyses of the Paleocene‐Eocene Wilcox Group of the southern Gulf Coast of Texas indicate long‐distance sediment transport from primarily volcanic and basement sources to the west, northwest, and southwest. ... This study indicates that the drainage area for the Gulf of Mexico during the Paleocene‐Eocene was larger than previously thought, encompassing not only the Laramide basement uplifts, but the volcanic province of northern Mexico and possibly Cordilleran tectonic regions along the westernmost North America." [U-Pb is shorthand for uranium and lead, as I recall from my university chemistry classes]

The red color would indicate that lighter minerals have washed out of the soil, leaving mostly iron. In fact, old timers have told me that the Caldwell County sand hills used to be known locally as the "Iron Mountains."

I have seen multiple flocks of wild geese circling Altamira in stacked layers, like a huge traffic jam at a major airport. it's one of the weirdest things I've ever seen -- I wondered if their navigation system was somehow messed up by a magnetic field created by all the iron in the soil. Would love to know if anyone else has observed this sort of behavior in migrating geese.

Strictly speaking, based on the distance between trees that make up the climax canopy, the land is savannah -- post-oak savannah, to give its "official" name. It is a 3 million hectare (7.4 m acre) borderland between the deciduous forests of the eastern U.S. and the prairie grasslands to the west. Annual rainfall averages 45 inches in the eastern-most parts to 35 in the west, where my land is located. According to climatic change research being done at Texas A&M University, 'Oak savannas contain the dominant life forms of both adjacent biomes to form a “tension” zone between grasslands and forests which may increase their responsiveness to global change drivers. Global change scenarios can be envisioned where either the tree or grass life forms would gain an advantage and encroach upon the adjacent biome. It is within this context, that tension zones provide a valuable opportunity to explore the responsiveness of these life forms to various global change drivers.' More on this later, for sure, but for now, back to the concept of wilderness.

One of the main reasons I bought the Berry Farm is that it transitions from post oak savannah soil to blackland prarie soil, to creek bottom, all within its 1/4 mile (about 400 meters) length. The native flora have been removed from the eastern, sandy part of the land. Unlike Altamira, with its coarser sand, the Berry Farm has loamy sand on its eastern side and was useful for growing crops. So settlers in the 1800's cleared the land and grew cotton here. Therefore, the Berry Farm does not qualify as wilderness, nor does it feel in the least like wilderness, as there are neighbors living within a few hundred feet.

Altamira felt like wilderness. It was far enough away from neighbors that one could yell and scream, and no one would hear. I liked this aspect of it when I was angry or frustrated and wanted to shout obscenities at high volume. The downside was that my daughter and I were on our on. We were on our own in other ways as well. The place was pretty much inaccessible from the county road, except on foot or by horse or the most rugged off-highway types of vehicles. I could get my old Datsun pickup in, but only because I knew exactly where to drive and when I needed to speed up to skitter across areas of deep sand. When people came to visit, I had to meet them at the county road and give them a ride in my truck, or walk with them up to the house. It was not feasible to call someone to come out and repair my washing machine, say, or get the truck running when it wouldn't start, or set up a water purification plant to clean up the silty water from the pond for household use. I had to learn how to do everything myself.

In many respects, it was like wilderness, but it was not truly wilderness. It was only 4.5 miles from the village of McMahan, where one could buy gasoline and barbecue. Only 16.5 miles from Lockhart, where one could buy almost any sort of supplies one could possibly need. So in that respect, it was very much a part of civilization. One of the first things I did was to find an old water heater in someone's trash and rig it up so I could build a fire under it and take a warm bath (in a little tub I got from an old travel trailer).

One reason I moved to the "wilderness" was so I could live cheaply. I found being a single mother very difficult. I wanted to spend time with my daughter as she grew up, and it was literally almost the death of me. Working full time, and also trying to do volunteer work at my daughter's school, participate in Girl Scouts, etc. wore me down. In ... I think it was 1990 ... I got bilateral pneumonia and came close enough to death to know what it's like to die (it's not bad -- once you accept that you're probably going to die and give up fighting it, there is no more pain). I could see that I needed to change the way I was living, if I wanted to see my daughter grow up. So there was that -- the need to work fewer hours and get more rest (it never occurred to me to work the same number of hours and reduce the amount of time I spent with my daughter).

Besides convincing me that I needed to figure out a way to live on almost no money, the close-to-death experience changed my thinking in some fundamental ways. My post-1990 life was like a bonus, a chance to do all the things I'd regret not doing, next time I was lying on my death bed.

Ever since I was a 4-year-old child, I had longed to live in a small village or on a farm. My great-grandmother, Annette Lamar, taught me to read from a book she'd used for her students when she was a school teacher in the 1930's. The main characters in the book were Alice and Jerry, two children who lived in a place called Friendly Village. At the time, I lived in a sterile suburban neighborhood in Houston, where the land was flat, all the houses were pretty much alike, and kids played in fenced back yards. I had such a longing to live in a place like Friendly Village! There was a picture I especially remember, a view of the village from the top of a grassy hill.

A village like that was really what I'd longed for all those years, but I didn't know of any such place in real life, certainly not in central Texas. I wanted to stay in central Texas so my daughter could maintain an on-going personal relationship with her father, who lived in Austin. Lockhart would be a lot like that, if there were no cars. I think cars have been the main source of destruction for U.S. cities and villages. I don't want to get started talking about Robert Moses right now. What's done is done, and one has to start where one is.

The views from both Altamira and the Berry Farm are somewhat like the view of Friendly Village from the grassy hilltop -- minus the village ... well, and without quite so many hills [Altamira is actually quite high up -- from the northwestern edge of the land, we could see across the valley all the way to San Marcos and the "hill country," 32 miles away]. 

Here's Altamira, looking north from (this is a mile and a quarter from our house, looking out over the neighbors' land, into civililzation):

and the Berry Farm, looking east from:

If I'd been more of a sociable person, an organizer, I might have found a bunch of like-minded people to create a new village. But the people I knew who would be interested in such a thing were not the sort of people who would be competent to actually go out and create a village. So I decided, what the hell, I'll do the best I can on my own.

In the course of building a house and growing my own food, I discovered that, even in a gentle land like central Texas,  it's pretty nearly impossible for one person to be self-sufficient. There's a reason humans are called "social animals."  If we had been completely on our own, my daughter an I would almost surely have died. It was easy, easy, easy to grow, or find, fruits and vegetables. We never would have had to worry about scurvy or folic acid deficiency. It was pretty easy to get protein as well. The really difficult thing was getting enough calories. It's so much the opposite of what one is used to dealing with in our culture, that I think it's probably hard for people to believe, if they haven't actually tried to live off the land for an extended period of time. Back in the time when there were ways of making a living in the U.S. that involved being away from civilization for a while -- trapping or prospecting, for example, there was a nutritional disease called "rabbit fever." I'm not sure where I first heard this -- maybe from Wild Horse Havard, who grew up in the piney woods of Liberty County, Texas. When you google on "rabbit fever," you get mostly websites about sick rabbits, but the pre-1900 meaning was a sickness resulting from getting too many of one's calories from protien. It is also sometimes referred to as "rabbit starvation." 

Rabbit starvation, also referred to as protein poisoning or mal de caribou, is a form of acute malnutrition caused by excess consumption of any lean meat (e.g., rabbitt) coupled with a lack of other sources of nutrients usually in combination with other stressors, such as severe cold or dry environment. Symptoms include diarrhea, headache, fatigue, low blood pressure and heart rate, and a vague discomfort and hunger that can only be satisfied by consumption of at or carbohydrates." 

I recently watched a documentary about the adventures of Chris McCandless (The Call of the Wild by Ron Lamothe). I was not unfamiliar with McCandless's story, having seen the Sean Penn movie and read Into the Wild by John Karkauer (which somewhat glorified McCandless), and several essays by Alaskans most of whom think of McCandless as a dumbass who went out into the wilderness deliberately unprepared. Lamothe's view of McCandless is the most similar to my own -- McCandless did some really stupid things, but don't we all, when we're young and adventurous? Remembering my self in my early 20's, recalling some of the close calls I had, I don't feel scornful of McCandless. I feel sorry that he didn't make it, because I'll bet he would have turned out to be a very interesting person if he had lived to be a mature man. 

Anyhow, based on the diet described by Krakauer, who said he got it from McCandless's jounal, once his 10 pound bag of rice was gone, McCandless was living almost entirely on lean meat. So I suspect that he suffered from "rabbit fever." Even if he'd been able to preserve the caribou he shot, he'd have been in trouble.

Dick Proenneke, who lived in a log cabin in the Alaskan wilderness for 30 years, routinely had supplies brought in from the outside. Even though he was alone in the wilderness most of the time, he had a constant lifeline from civilization.

When my daughter and I lived at Altamira, we made regular trips to town for supplies. I kept many pounds of staples, such as wheat and corn seeds, sugar, and salt on hand at all times. In 1997 (or was it 1998?) a flood washed out the bridge on the only road that connected us to the rest of the world. I went down and saw that the usually peaceful little creek had become a raging torrent 15 feet deep, and I would no sooner have tried to cross it than to jump from a 10-story building. But life went on as usual at Altamira. My daughter didn't want to miss school, so we hiked out the back way, and she stayed with friends until the flood subsided and the bridge was re-built. 

Reading about Chris McCandless, knowing that there was a "back way" out for him too, I have to wonder why he didn't follow the Teklanika River, when it blocked his path, until it intersected a road. Maybe he thought he'd be OK living on wild game. Maybe he didn't know about rabbit fever.


  1. I've never heard of rabbit starvation. Fascinating. Learn something new everyday : )

    I think your story is very inspiring...reinventing your life, and going after a childhood dream.

    Your view of McCandless reminds of a scene in Twilight: Eclipse. They had a great graduation speech, talking about how young adulthood is NOT a time to make huge career decisions. It's a time for exploring and making mistakes.

    Actually, they had a similar speech/line in another movie. I forgot the name of the movie. But they said we encourage youth to make plans. Instead, we should be encouraging them to plan to be surprised.

    There's teens today who are sailing around the world. It's amazing to see the variation of public response. Some see it as an inspiring and brave adventure. Others see it as being horribly irresponsible and foolish. Then they accuse the parents of neglect and child abuse.

    Life would probably be better if more of us ignored the safe and easy choice, and instead pursued the crazy outrageous choice.

  2. I live in a hundred-acre Longleaf pine/mixed hardwood/wiregrass forest. When one of my step-granddaughters, Julia, was about 7, we were walking in the woods and she said, "Beth, I have a very important question." (That's how all of her earnest inquiries begin.) "Do you like living in the wilderness, or was it all Granddad's idea?" I explained to her that we both love where we live and had chosen it together; however, anyplace with a supermarket, major roads and a Starbucks less than 8 miles away was not wilderness, but an anachronistic, lucky-to-still-be-there bit of woods surrounded by development. Her next "serious question" was this: "Okay, well, can I have your house when you die?"

  3. You have a very wise granddaughter, Elizabeth!

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