Footprints

1999 – When my Old Man drove us somewhere to go fishing or hunting or visiting, I would lean my head against the window and watch the landscape go by. Our two-door ’54 Chevy had lots of room for two boys to roll about in the back seat, but that got boring pretty quick, and Dad went slowly enough that you could really see things. They were mostly farm roads and I was intrigued by the roadside pattern of fields, pastures, splash of houses, farm buildings, ponds and streams.

If the farmer planted at right angles to the road, you just fixed your eyes straight out the window and watched the rows curve, straighten, curve, like someone ruffling a deck of cards. Sometimes the rows were at another angle, and you had to be quick to get them lined up right to see the movement. If you found a field long enough, would you become hypnotized?

The country around Fort Worth was rolling plains, with brushy, scrub oak hillsides and tree-lined streams in the valleys. Going west, the country broke up, with larger bottom lands holding pretty meadows scattered with pecan trees, the closely cropped winter wheat looking smooth as a lawn. And there was always mesquite. The great grasslands of Texas, once home to the buffalo, then cattle, was overrun with the weed; too small to be a tree, to big to be a bush, too misshapen and ephemeral to be pretty, and too prickly to be much good for anything.

They say mesquite didn’t exist north of the Pecos River before the Civil War, when massive drives of Mexican cattle to northern railheads slowly spread the tree north. The mesquite bean is considered tasty by deer and cattle, and the seed germinates while passing through the system of such beasts. The hundreds of thousands of cattle driven through Texas in the second half of the 1800’s dragged the germinating beans in their own fertilizer inexorably northward.

In the ’50’s, groups of migrant workers, with sweat soaked shirts and dirty straw cowboy hats, cleared pastures of mesquite by hand, axes and machetes flashing in the 100 degree heat. I was particularly fearful of snakes (and still am – did you know that all the poisonous snakes that exist in North America are resident to Texas?), but you’d see these workers clambering through the brush, dragging the trees and branches into great piles for later burning. If left, these piles became great snake dens, but also became cover for quail and other small critters.

Cheap as migrant workers were, few ranchers in those days could afford the manpower to beat the relentless mesquite. It would be another twenty years before the by-products of the war-that-wasn’t-a-war would produce the necessary poisons to turn the tide. Some ranchers “chained” their pastures, dragging a long metal chain between two bulldozers to flatten the trees. But crews still had to go through the great mess, chopping the twisted tangle and dragging them into piles for burning.

One particular stretch of road west of town ran through a succession of small, nearly abandoned towns, eerily alike in their one block of old stone buildings. Occasionally one whole side of the block would be two-story, but always most of the storefronts were empty. Some hung on as bars or cafes, somehow drawing enough support from the surrounding ranches and drive-through traffic to get by one more year. Some streets were paved with brick, and some boasted a stoplight and school. Tall brick grain silos defined the feed store, usually across the highway from town. The ranches surrounding these towns were seldom money-makers, most income coming from some small oil or gas production royalties immediately plowed back into the ranch. For the most part the roadsides between these towns were dull, the incessant grey-green curtain of mesquite blurring the view.

One year we were using a particular ranch out that way for our hunting and fishing (our opportunities dependent upon the graciousness of the ranchers that made up my father’s clientele). We made the same trip often. One trip, I leaned against the closed window, nearly catatonic with ennui, as only a kid can be, when something caught my eye; some pattern in the blur. It seemed to go on for several miles, but I couldn’t quite find it, no matter how I turned or where I focused my eyes. After that, each time we returned, I looked harder to pierce the mystery of that grey-green blur. I could see, but not quite define, the pattern. Nothing as rapid or as dense as crop rows, no discernible rhythm to the mesquite. Something on the ground, some regularity. Straight lines, regular shapes. I’d seen them before.

As the season changed from summer fishing to winter duck hunting, the thickness of the summer vegetation shifted to the spare brittleness of winter, revealing more of the pattern in the roadside. I saw long straight lines driving off into brush, formed by alternating raised blocks. The raised parts had more brush and mesquite, and were more rugged, broken up. The in-between areas were smoother, seemed to stretch farther and were more regular.

I knew these patterns. On the way out of our town, you saw them cut into pastures, into the soon-to-be housing developments. The smooth areas were streets; the raised were the remaining foundations of buildings. All hidden right in front of my eyes beneath the brush, the cactus and the mesquite. As soon as I pointed it out to the others, I knew my observation was no revelation, just stating of the obvious. The others knew that the ruined towns we traversed had once been supported by people.

Real people had come here to live. I learned later that they had come to mine the cheap, poor quality lignite that crumbled throughout the region in piles. Hundreds had come a half century or more earlier to start a new life in a new place, where opportunity waited for the daring, and security rewarded the hardworking.

Now that promise was etched as a barely discernible pattern in the rough country. To me, it was a real-live ghost town; maybe with lots of ghosts, very little town. The quickly built houses had been torn down, fell down or blown down; or maybe it had only been a tent city, as mobile as its residents. Now only the footprints remained, the only reminder of the hundreds of lives that once filled the space, and the promise offered. I was in awe that something so obvious had gone without comment; that something so real could just fade away.

I don’t know if I could find the place again; the roads we travel as kids are seldom the same as an adult. And anyway, I don’t get that way often. Part of me would like to go back and see how much is left. If the landowner got rid of the mesquite, maybe you would see it plainly, the rows of streets and blocks now empty of houses. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to change the way it looks in my mind.

I think on it again every time I travel past a new development, the raw cuts in the earth for streets and drainage signifying our possession and control over the land. My eyes see the new houses going up, foundations laid, lawns installed. But what my mind sees is that blur of mesquite, the not quite discernible lines in the brush. I see the future, not the present or the past. The future, when nature decides to take it back, when man changes again the pattern of his footprints on the land.

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