Saturday, September 7, 2019

Visiting the Valley


Mike Pence and I spent my birthday a few weeks ago in McAllen visiting migrant centers.

He went to the Border Patrol Detention Center with its overcrowded cages. I went to the Humanitarian Respite Center a few blocks away where there were no cages, no overcrowding. He went with an entourage; I went alone.

The Respite Center is run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Its executive director is Sister Norma Pimentel who has been the recipient of praise and awards from many sources, including from Pope Francis.

Sister Norma is an impressive person, about my height with smooth silver hair and a serene face. She moves in a clear bubble of calm that reminds me of the poem “Desiderata:” “Go placidly among the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

She does, however, have plenty to say.

The Humanitarian Respite Center that she opened in June, 2014 has moved to a former nightclub building on South Main St. in McAllen, cattycorner from the bus station.

After being processed by ICE, migrants arrive at the spacious center where they receive whatever help they need to get to their destinations. Food, a free phone, clothing, shoes, toiletries, assistance with tickets and contacting relatives. Before anything, Sister Norma emphasizes, they receive smiles of welcome.

“They are so scared when they arrive,” she says. “They have come from so far away, on foot, carrying children. When they see the smiles of the volunteers, you can see the change. They are transformed.”

The problem, Sister Norma says, is “humanitarian, first of all. We must not forget that.”

To continue the work, the Center needs donations “of everything,” she says. “And we encourage volunteers from all over. It has been a difficult time for children and we are moved by sadness. But we can make a difference by welcoming them wherever they go. The act of welcome can be very important in beginning the healing process.”

The Center is, also, working with agencies in Mexico who are providing services to families who are held back.

Other people I spoke with in the McAllen area have plenty to say, too.

The past year has been hard. The influx of migrants, the threat of the wall, the flood of negative media attention. Tourism is vital to the area, home to some of the world’s best birdwatching. Lovers of wildlife across the U.S. worry about the effect of President Trump’s wall on the parks set aside as way stations and refueling oases for migrating flocks of birds and butterflies, including the threatened Monarch.

All that attention has curtailed travel to the border. When I mentioned to friends that LH and I were going to make our visit, they warned me to be careful, although in 2018 McAllen had the lowest crime rate in 34 years. And no homicides.

Still, I wondered what I might encounter. Armed officers patrolling the streets? Roadblocks? Hungry people crowding the sidewalks?

Nope. None of that.

But the life of local residents has been disrupted. “For as long as I can remember,” one woman told me, “we moved freely across the border. It was almost as though the border wasn’t there, except for the fact of the river itself. Now we rarely cross.”

I saw one physical reason why.

We’d driven out toward Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, avoiding the freeway. The route gave us a clear view of traffic on the nearby international bridge. It had come to a dead stop in 100 degree heat and was backed up into Mexico for as far as we could see. Few people would endure that discomfort for any reason that wasn’t urgent.

I spoke to a staff member at the Butterfly Center that is part of the World Birding installation nearby. He said that the wall’s intrusion has been put on hold for the moment. Access remains normal and visitors may come without concern.

That was the word I got the other wildlife sites, as well. Summer isn’t the best time for birds, but the fall season approaches. We plan to return then to enjoy the richness of the wildlife.

And also to support with our presence these small, vital pockets of respite for wild birds and butterflies whose value to the human soul is not quantifiable by the next quarter’s balance sheet.

The entwined fates of migrating birds and migrating people seems no more at first glance than an interesting coincidence. But they both relate to the oddity of national borders, drawn in dirt and on paper by human beings and quite invisible, as we learned, from space. We spend so much energy on their location and enforcement, but they are at heart a problem that we human beings create.

Donations:

For monetary donations: Humanitarian Respite Center of the RGV, 111 S. Main St.in McAllen, Tx 78501. For donations of clothing, shoes and other goods: 700 N. Virgen de San Juan Blvd., San Juan, TX 78589. To volunteer, please contact the volunteercoordinator@cdob.org

https://www.catholiccharitiesrgv.org

This appeared in August as a column in the Fayette County Record.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Here, Here


There’s no there, there, Gertrude Stein once said of her hometown, long after she left it. Returning to Houston gives me a similar feeling.

The neighborhoods remain where they have always been. The trees may be larger, the streets more potholed or newly iced with asphalt. But so much is missing. People we knew. Homes we knew.

Especially disorienting are thoroughfares we once traveled every day, now transformed by the disappearance of strip centers, the upheavals of new multi-story apartment buildings. We didn’t even know that nearby convenience store was a landmark until it disappeared.

Sometimes the only assurance we’ve not been transported to a completely different city comes from the street signs, a familiar intersection of names, if nothing else.

It’s then that I am especially grateful to return to Fayette and Washington Counties.

We still have a here, here. Our historical societies and museums show we even cherish it, to a degree, against the ravages of homogenizing progress.

I live quite close to one such place: Winedale, the complex of buildings and collections left to the University of Texas by philanthropist Miss Ima Hogg back in the 1960’s.

An influx of energy, attention and money is returning this celebration of our area’s culture to the place it once enjoyed in our community.

The Friends of Winedale, a nonprofit group of volunteers and donors, has spearheaded the effort in cooperation with UT’s Briscoe Center of American History, which provides the scholarly expertise, oversight and continuity required.

FOW’s fundraising events over the past four years, together with an exceedingly generous donation from an interested individual, combined to contribute around $600,000 to the repair and rehabilitation of the historic buildings and grounds.

The University has responded with an expanded staff, including a site manager with expertise in historic preservation and an enthusiastic educational and docent coordinator with many ideas for the coming year.

Several are already underway.

“Lunch and Learn” brings fascinating talks of local interest to the Meadows Center at Winedale the third Tuesday of every month, from noon to 1PM, free. Attendees bring their own lunch, and Winedale provides refreshments and dessert.

The Visitor Center is currently hosting “The Music of Winedale,” showcasing artifacts from the collection, including the 19th century flute belonging to Rudolph Melchior, whose interior painted decoration first caught Miss Hogg’s attention.

On June 1, Winedale hosted “Kids Fish!” with Brenham’s High School Anglers providing guidance for the young fishermen.

Of course, this summer means Shakespeare at Winedale, the world famous University of Texas program that brings Shakespeare’s plays to life in a 19th century barn.

Do you like to make music unplugged? On August 31, performers will celebrate International Music on the Front Porch Day. To sign up, call the office at 979-278-3530. Come listen from 10 to noon that day, at Hazel’s Lone Oak Cottage. Free. Winedale will supply refreshments.

Free tours of the buildings will begin on the second Saturday, September through December, on a rotating basis.

Rehabilitation of the two log cabins is expected to be complete by December, joining the other freshly refurbished historic buildings in time for Christmas at Winedale. The proposed widening of Winedale Road (FM 2714) should be complete by then, as well.

If you’re interested in learning about the history and culture of our area, call Tricia Blakistone at the office to volunteer. A new class begins on Thursday, September 5 at 9:30 a.m. Be a docent, or volunteer in another capacity. All are welcome!

At this point you may be asking why this collection of old buildings and artifacts matters.

I think of it as a reality check. For us and for our children riveted to screens.

Wherever our people originated, they knew houses like these, built before electricity. They carried water from wells. They did their wash on washboards, grew corn and beans and sweet potatoes, raised poultry. And they made by hand the beauty they needed in their homes. They carved it, painted it.

And, amazingly, it survives them. Some of it does, anyway.

“The Winedale Story,” a permanent exhibit in Hazel’s Lone Oak Cottage, is open to the public Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sundays, noon to 4. It’s free. Come see for yourself what it’s all about.

Winedale Historical Complex, 3738 FM 2714, Round Top. 979-278-3530. Babette Fraser Hale serves on the FOW board.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Hello Pipelines


Why are pipelines carving up our pastures? To what purpose?

Why have the developers come into one of the last easily accessible scenic areas of Texas, a tourist and retirement destination of great beauty, to undermine what makes it unique? And, incidentally, the very thing that that makes its small towns economically vibrant, when all around the state other small towns are dying?

Why have they been allowed to do this? Who benefits?

I know selling pipeline ROW makes the landowner a little money. $500 every 16 feet (rod) in some cases. Or more; or less. Depending… 

I know that successful oil and gas production can make the mineral owners more than a little money. But many of those mineral owners around here have sold their land to newcomers over the past decade, pocketing their dollars and retaining the mineral interest whose exploitation can ruin the peaceful enjoyment of the purchaser for years. 

Why is it happening?  

Technology and the profit motive have combined to allow deep production of (usually wet) gas in this area through fracking and horizontal drilling. This isn’t shale gas at the moment, although that is coming. It’s the old Austin Chalk, at around 14,000 feet.

I’m told by people active in the industry that wet gas is rich in natural gas liquids, mostly ethane, but also propane, butane, etc. These hydrocarbons are enjoying boom conditions now. All along the Texas Gulf Coast, petrochemical companies are investing billions of dollars in crackers and processing facilities to turn NGL’s, particularly ethane, into plastics, along with petrochemical and refinery feedstocks. 

Wet gas requires a lot of processing, some of it quite close to the area of production. Thus, we have more disruption to look forward to. More oversized well pads needed for this kind of drilling, more noise and disruption related to the drilling process itself. More pipelines to carry the gas to market. More processing plants. The “state-of-the-art” cryogenic processing facility being completed near Burton is one example.  

The company building this infrastructure is Aspen Midstream. Here is what their website tells us: Aspen Midstream is backed by growth capital from EnCap Flatrock Midstream. The initial system will consist of more than 90 miles of 10-inch to 20-inch gas gathering mainlines, treating facilities, a state-of-the-art cryogenic processing plant with the capacity to process 200 million cubic feet of natural gas per day, and a residue gas pipeline to the market hub at Katy, Texas.

The website goes on to say that they’re looking forward to expanding as the production expands. That means years and years of noise, toxic odors and visual ugliness. (For information on the shale play probability, check out: https://eaglefordshale.com/counties/fayette-county-tx)

In my view, the qualities of city life that no one wants are following us like a crime we hadn’t meant to commit—industrialization, truck traffic, pollution, toxic air, ugliness, grinding noise that elevates your heart rate and blood pressure. 

Mess, with no community benefit.

Only a very few will benefit, while many will suffer for years. For some, it’s the rest of their lives.

Mind you, these are private companies who are doing this because it makes them money. We who live here will lose money as well as our well-being and that doesn’t count at all.

Did anyone tell you this was coming? Did they ask your permission? Or did they keep the specifics sufficiently secret to prevent any meaningful opposition? 

The overriding argument is that our country needs energy. Texas has been dominated by the oil and gas industry, riding on this argument, for more than a century. But we are now exporting energy to other countries. We are now exhorted to look for non-carbon-based energy sources. Scientists are begging us to think about the excess of carbon in our atmosphere. Find a way to decrease it, sequester it.

The oil and gas industry, meanwhile, keeps rolling along on autopilot. Like those airliners whose software kept pushing their noses into the ground.  

Because the argument behind it has become a fallacy. The destruction of our lives here in Fayette and adjacent counties isn’t really so that America can be safe from her enemies. It’s not for America’s 
benefit, at all.

It is to make plastics for the world, which is already choking in the stuff.

---

Disclosure: I have personal investments in a highly industrialized part of Texas that benefit from the petrochemical boom. I say: leave our scenic areas alone.


Sunday, April 28, 2019

Masterful


The most beautiful golf shot I’ve seen in years came at last Sunday’s Masters tournament. It was, oddly enough, a putt. A long putt, early in the final day. The fact it brought tears to my eyes says as much about me, I guess, as the putt itself, and its author, Tiger Woods.

We’ve been Woods fans for decades. And why not? He has always been a story in motion, a narrative packed with drama, every swing: “Triumph or disaster,” as Kipling said, and “treat those two imposters just the same.”  

When the man Woods self-destructed in a personal way, it was really more a sad extension of the narrative fascination than a departure.

And then he began the long road back, painfully reassembling himself. His physical obstacles included a broken leg, crushed knee, four back surgeries, including a fusion. For a time, he could barely walk.

We do love a story of second chances. Most of us have transgressed, sometimes spectacularly, sometimes tragically--or just tragicomically--in our lives. When a sports great struggles back from disaster, and seems to have done so successfully, we feel a personal connection. We pull for him.

Yes, we do.

But then there is the golf.  The two came together on Sunday in the beauty of that putt, one of many extraordinary shots he made that day. Looking relaxed, focused, through it all.

It was an unusually long putt on the eighth green. A downhill putt with a necessary break.

Any golfer knows the interior trembling induced in contemplating such a putt. The pull of gravity adds the element of dire consequences to the already daunting combination of distance and direction. I think of the challenge as an adventure in imagination.

Woods stood for a long time before he struck it. Calculating. Visualizing. I stood there with him, then. Many did.

We knew what was coming next.

Golf is a series of existential moments. Every part of the golfer must execute in perfect sequence before connecting with a stationary sphere barely wider than a quarter. It requires faultless concentration. You set up, you pause, swing—and you’ve stepped off a ledge, suspended in air until the ball drops.

You are not in control. At no point are what we think of as “you” in control. “You” may contemplate, estimate, and you should. Then something else about you takes over. Muscle memory, training—and if you can sustain it, over and over again, character.

Out there on the course, your truest opponent is yourself. Your rhythms, your nerves. The temptation to cut a corner in a friendly game is strong. Winter rules. Gimme putts. Mulligans. Who doesn’t long for a mulligan in daily life? Who doesn’t long for a do-over?

I said I stood with Tiger Woods as he imagined that long putt I found so beautiful.

I began to play golf at thirteen. A natural, the pro said of me. I even loved to practice, and the practice paid off, tee to green.

But I never became adept at putting. Faced with a putt as long as Tiger’s on Sunday, I would see my day’s score doubling. I would have far preferred to be the same distance from the cup off the green, where I could chip.

That’s why I was there with him when he struck the ball. Holding my breath as it rolled, and rolled and rolled—perfectly calibrated, hewing to its invisible track as it yearned toward the hole and Tiger’s eagle.

And missed.

Tears arrived in my eyes--for its almost perfection.

For the unimaginable quantity of work required for its author to rebound from so much personal mess and injury. The months of mental, emotional and painful physical labor necessary to miss by only inches while within a stroke or two of the lead in the Masters.

And then, quite calmly, to go on and win.

Redemption, perhaps, is part of the greatest comeback story in golf, since Ben Hogan’s.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Springing, Sprung


Spring, at last, is airborne. We feel it on our skin, outdoors.

We see it, from car windows, colors pooling faintly in the greening fields. The flood of blue, orange, red and yellow will come soon. Invasive rapistrum rugosum, whose common name seems harsh for these pages, has made a good start, already, the tall, appealing spray of pale yellow disguising its ruthlessness.

Ah, but close up, the little things. Under our feet in the yard, tiny yellow starbursts, dots of periwinkle blue. The suspended layer of onion grass brings white to sunny spaces. Oak shade shelters the five petaled snowy cups of dewberry blooms.

Much of the ground is a dappled carpet of dropped leaves, beige and dark gold, implying the variegated hues of a copperhead. We walk with attention to where we step.

Here is a black jack oak, leaves of puckered green silk trailing chartreuse beards of bloom. More oaks in the woods, brushing our shoulder along the path—the translucent green at the end of a post oak branch, tenderest leaf to have so much responsibility, for life, for breath.

A fallen limb from seasons past wears a velvet coverlet, moss of the most brilliant green.

And, of course, there is the vigor of new briars yearning up the stalky trunks of yaupon, reaching for the sky. Sprigs of bright poison ivy, newly juiced, look to their important task, despite our inconvenience.

Across the pasture, trees exhale a green fog that lifts the heart in celebration. We see it and feel that hope is possible, even certain, if only we could renew ourselves in the way trees do. Live slowly, tasting every current of air, valuing the fall of daylight every moment upon us.

The pasture sprouts many things other than grass: Expectations of bluebonnets, coreopsis, the first paintbrush, its tip dipped in orange. Low growing clover competes with prickly pear, four inches tall to puncture tires and paws. Our dog finds thorns everywhere she goes.

There is more than one variety of clover, probably, but how do we really learn to name the plants we live with? Most of us just use the names we learned in childhood from our families and friends. Thus, the mis-named buttercup which turned out to be pink evening primrose.

I watch a mystery beginning under the live oak, a plant that looks like arugula, but sprouts a central succulent stalk, lightly fuzzed. The tiny independent flowers that will make its bloom, but haven’t yet, may reveal its identity tomorrow. A dandelion? Wild lettuce?

Naming things is fundamental to a human being, but does it help us see them more clearly? Or does it allow us to abstract them, to categorize wonder?

Butterflies have arrived, black ones, yellow ones, mixed orange and black that are not Monarchs, although we wish they were. Here, too, we lack the nomenclature.

But names don’t mitigate the buzzing of other small insects that accompany this riot of green. Instead of winter’s sere clarity only a week or two ago, the air is plaited now with gnats and other translucent insects. They fly under your visor, tickling earlobes, tasting you to see if you’re worth further exploration. No mosquitoes, though.

It’s early still.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

By the Grace of Trees


This morning the cardinals filled our woods with full-hearted song. Even more than Mrs. Muske’s daffodils, the chorus of this particular bird suggests that spring is stirring, once again. Stuttering its way to us, interspersed with icy blasts.

We were relieved to hear the redbirds. Last year, their numbers seemed  greatly reduced, and we were reminded of the feeling we had during the recent drouth. It was a pressure of sorrow, of ill-being, as we walked through the woods, or drove past the fields of graying grass and disappearing livestock.

We were surprised by how physical it felt.

And despite subsequent rains, the understory of briars, yaupon and young trees has never recovered. A few years ago we couldn’t see through the woods around our tank. Now we can, and it makes our admittedly small property seem much smaller. Makes us feel somewhat precarious, and isolated.

Over the last two years, we’ve seen many fewer of our usual animals, as well—rabbits, squirrels, coyotes, raccoons, snakes, and so on; many fewer insects—bees, dragonflies, butterflies, even wasps and dirt daubers.

We hoped part of the reason might be our resident red-shouldered hawk and barred owl, pursuing their living in the natural cycle of wild things. An animal must eat, after all.

We must.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as part of the animal world. Even less do we desire to consider ourselves part of the plant world. Nature is becoming so alien to our increasingly technical, virtual lives that we barely notice it.

Yet when nature throbs in pain, as it does during a drouth, we feel it in our deepest self.

According to a remarkable book I read recently--The Overstory, by Richard Powers--we humans share a quarter of our genes with trees. We are connected to these beings we barely notice from the car window. We don’t realize how they communicate because they act so slowly and use far older conveyances of meaning than our words and electronic digits. Smell, for instance, by which our bodies register, without our conscious knowledge, the chemical molecules the trees exude. Walking in one of the few dense forests left, we feel good, and it’s because of the chemicals the trees exhale, along with oxygen.

We know we are dependent on trees for our breath. But we are so focused on ourselves that we destroy them without thought. Replace them with cut lumber, concrete, metal, polymers and plastics casually, calling it progress.

We are so alienated from nature that we think of it as a resource, to be exploited for our use. It never occurs to us that nature is alive, much larger and more powerful than we are. And that we exist, fundamentally, at its pleasure. 

For most of our lives, the perceptions that allow this myopia, have trended narrowly, with ourselves at the center. Something very interesting happens to the mind, however, as we grow old.

Time, speeding up, lifts us away from the personal focus of middle-aged responsibility and yearnings. We feel ourselves rising to a perspective from which we can see our lives in context. We note the ways in which our surroundings have changed, and we perceive clearly our human role in those changes, good and bad.

We register scientific advances in medicine, for example; and also the advent of nuclear bombs, the explosive growth of urban sprawl and plastic garbage, the destruction of old growth and rain forests.

But this larger, more accurate and valuable understanding comes at the precise time our children, working toward the next project, profit report or paycheck, begin to dismiss us as “out of touch.”

It may be the greatest of all human ironies. Because never before have we been so “in touch,” with reality. (Underscoring that irony, our grandchildren, as yet unsullied by the machine of modern life, come closer to understanding than do their parents.)

And, if we are honest with ourselves, that reality tells us that, for our species to survive—for the earth to have a chance of remaining hospitable to us—we must find a way to transmit wisdom beyond the limitations of our individual human lifespan.

In business, technology, philosophy; in science and politics; in family, too, the creativity and energy of youth must join with the perspective of age, instead of ignoring it. Knowledge must flow in both directions.

As older cultures have perceived, the wisdom of elders is a real thing, and it can be used to save us, if given half a chance.


In a slightly different form, this post appeared as my column for February in the Fayette County Record.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Cleaning Up

Yearning to breathe free—that is me, surveying the accumulation of clutter on my desk. January is the time for clean sweeps. In my case, literally.

We spend all year receiving paper into the house. It comes in the form of mail and magazines, bills and circulars, and—yes--our local newspaper, twice a week.
Also, books. Both of us never met a book we could pass by without a surging of maybe. Maybe this is the one we’ll never forget. Maybe this one will reveal the reality within the mystery we write to understand.

Far too many books climb onto our dining table, our bedside tables, every horizontal surface. We hate to throw them away, or give them away. They are our shell of protection, the friends we can return to for insight and reliable support.
To this constant onslaught of paper material, I have one of two responses: Nope. (That’s the easy one, round-file ready.) Or, “Hey, that looks interesting…” The latter is what builds the towers of Babel I find stacked up everywhere at the end of the year. Words on paper, still waiting to be read.

They weren’t interesting enough, apparently.
Fortunately, once I begin the throwing out, I become as obsessive as I am in front of a writing job. Such a visible achievement, these bags of trash! Each one is a trophy whose weight only the garbage men will truly measure.

But I’m serious about breathing free when the clutter is gone. It seems as if those disorderly surfaces were a weight I’ve been carrying, as though in a way, they consumed much of the oxygen in the room. Maybe there’s a microbial reason for this, or maybe it is merely a form of guilt, the heaviness of a task unfinished, testifying to sloth, laziness.
Never mind that I’ve been productive in other realms. Never mind the Everests of laundry, Mojaves of meals, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of kilobytes typed, pages written and read.

The pages that come in the mail are the ones who have voices in a register that sets my teeth on edge if I do not respond. If I procrastinate.
An easy way to procrastinate is to take Rosie for a walk.

Being a Lab, and habitual, she has a route we follow. She leads. I follow. When I find myself becoming bored, I recite poetry.
This is new for me.

I decided it would be good brain exercise to memorize poetry I liked, which I could practice when doing boring tasks. Driving to Houston. Separating dark and light clothing. Skinning carrots.
Watching Rosie smell a single twelve-inch patch of dirt and grass for ten minutes.

So far I have three poems by heart. Soothing, oldish poems: The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by W.B. Yeats; The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry; Stopping By Woods, by Robert Frost. You will note they’re all short.
They also evoke the solace of nature. The balm of being in the “lovely, dark and deep,” woods, “alone in the bee-loud glade,” after coming “into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”

These poems bring me stillness, light and air. And that same sense of breathing free, albeit heightened, that I have right now looking at my (temporarily) uncluttered desk. While the new mail that will begin the process of ruining it waits on the porch for me to carry it inside.