Local Heroes in Western Tennessee

We spent last night at the Holiday Inn in Forrest City, Arkansas.  The town was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest.  As we drove through western Tennessee, we came across Forrest a few more times. He was very much the famous home town boy.  I read that there are thirty-two monuments associated with him in Tennessee. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate cavalry officer and a true military genius.  On the other hand, he trafficked in slaves, was accused of war crimes and was associated with the KKK, although he denied both of the latter. On the other hand, in later life Forrest advocated re-consolidation between North and South and between the races.   

The man was a fighter and good at his job.  He famously said that war means fighting and fighting means killing.  What you can say for sure about Nathan Bedford Forrest is that he was a man of significant contradictions and that he was well-thought-of at least by some people around Western Tennessee, Western Arkansas & Northern Mississippi.

A less controversial local hero is Casey Jones.  He was an engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad.  His passenger train, the Cannonball Express, ran into a stalled freight train near Vaughan, MS.  Jones stayed with the train, pulling on the brakes. He managed to reduce the speed of his train from around 75mph to 35mph. His bravery undoubtedly saved the lives of passengers, none of whom were killed, but Casey Jones died in the wreck.

Casey Jones’ experience was immortalized in a song, much like the Wreck of the Old 97, in Virginia. Train wrecks made an impression on those around to see them. We visited the Casey Jones museum in Jackson, Tennessee and saw his house, some railroad artifacts & an engine much like his. It is one of those places that is worth seeing if you are already driving past, but probably not worth going to see if you are not.

The lyrics to the song are at this link.

The top picture is a cotton field in Western Tennessee. Cotton is very hard on the soil & the crop exhausts the nutrients quickly. This was wasteful but it also provided incentive for westward expansion, as new lands were constantly needed. Next is the pyramid of Memphis. I guess it is an arena.  Chrissy took the picture of the pyramid, as we drove over the bridge and she demanded I give her credit. This was indeed a good picture, but the others she took on the fly look like they were taken by a drunken monkey.  We have to take the sweet with the bitter. BTW – there are no pyramids in the original Memphis. The next picture is an engine like the machine that Casey Jones would have driven, but this one is smaller. The bottom picture is the bathroom in Casey Jones’ house. He was fairly well off for the time. I would like to visit the past, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Besides all the exotic diseases, poor dentistry and interesting smells, we had bathrooms like this for those lucky enough to have such luxurious accommodations.

Waiting at the Bat Cave

We went to an old railroad tunnel near Fredericksburg to see the bats emerge. You can see from the picture above that bat viewing is a minor local attraction. We didn’t actually see the bats emerge. They did it too much after dark. They come out around dark every night. If they come out around dark before it gets too dark, you can see them, otherwise we just take their word that they came out.

The bats in the tunnel are Mexican free tail bats. They are small bats that eat insects, mostly moths.  They are useful because they devour prodigious numbers of corn moths. 

We were told, but I didn’t actually see, that the bats take off in a spiral to get enough lift to get into the air.  The experienced bats do it well.  When there are lots of new bats, the show is evidently more chaotic, presuming you can see it.  The bats never come out on schedule and nobody is sure why they come out when they do. One theory is that they just come out when they get hungry, so it depends on how much they ate the night before.  Another theory is that there is not theory. One or more of them wanders out and others follow.

A couple people run the “bat watch”. Bat people are special and they are very enthusiastic about bats.  They showed pictures and explained the importance of bats in the environment.  As I wrote above, the most useful thing they do is eat lots of flying bugs. Bat guano makes very good fertilizer and the bat woman explained guano used to be one of Texas’ biggest exports.

Bats are threatened by a fungus disease called white nose.  It can wipe out whole bat colonies.  Nobody knows what causes it, but it is probably helped to spread by people coming around from cave to cave, so many bat caves are now closed off to casual visitors. At out bat viewing area, we were told not to go down to the opening.  I would not have done so anyway. I appreciate the importance of bats and understand that these little bats are harmless, but I still  think it would be a little creepy to be standing right among them.  Besides, they probably crap when they fly.

The top picture is the crowd waiting for the bats. Below that picture is one of my friend Dennis Neffendorf’s sheep just before sun up. Dennis owns a peach farm near Fredericksburg. If you want some great peaches, let me know and I will put you in touch. You met Dennis in earlier posts. He worked with me in Iraq.  The sheep are unrelated to the bats, but I needed a place to put the nice picture. 

President Johnson & his ranch

We also visited the LBJ ranch. Unfortunately, I deleted the pictures by mistake. My only text would be that LBJ actually cared about his ranch. He had a great herd of cattle and he took good care of the land. No matter what you think of him as a politician or a human being, he was a good steward of the land.  For me, that means a lot. 

Dennis, mentioned above, grew up near the Johnson ranch and as a kid got to do odd jobs around the ranch. He know a lot about the Johnson’s and the people around them. He said Johnson was a bigger than life type guy. He could be a bully and an A-hole, but he remembered his roots and took an interest in everyone he met.  Like all great men, he was complex and contradictory, so biographers can find what they want.  Lady-Bird Johnson was universally a lady in all the positive senses of the word and she stood by Lyndon. I took a good picture of the tombstones of Lydon and Lady-Bird. Hers is a little bigger.  On his tombstone is the presidential seal.  Hers features a Texas bluebell. Mrs. Johnson did a good job with wild flowers.

Deutschland uber Texas

You can see the physical German influence in the buildings and the people in Fredericksburg and all around the Texas hill country. I knew that lots of Germans colonized Texas, but I was surprised by how much this resembled Wisconsin in terms of heritage and appearance. My picture doesn’t really show it. I made a mistake and erased fifteen of my pictures, so I have to use what I have left.  Along this street there are mostly German names. We had breakfast in a nice German bakery. 

Germans were hard-working and frugal, which meant that they adapted fairly well almost wherever they went.   We visited one of their neat farms – the Sauer-Beckmann farm – near the LBJ ranch.  They have living history, with period costumes, appropriate livestock etc.  The original colonists, the Sauer family, made a “modified” log cabin.  I say modified because logs were relatively rare in this part of Texas centuries ago.  (It is a little misleading to look around today because there are more trees today, since the wild fires started by lightning and Indians have been controlled.) To save on wood, the logs were interspersed with stones, which were common. Making a wall entirely of stone takes longer than making this kind of hybrid.  When they had the time, they made the buildings out of limestone and so later additions were often stone.

The pictures above and below are from the Sauer-Beckmann farm, part of the LBJ park complex.  One good thing about both is that they have actual livestock. Livestock were a big part of rural life and when they do the recreations w/o them it is not realistic.  Johnson himself left some of his land to the park system with the stipulation that they maintain the place as a working ranch with cattle. 

The Germans fit uneasily into the pre-Civil War Texas because they set themselves apart to some extent and had a superior attitude at times.  More importantly, they were strongly and loudly against slavery.  When Texas voted to succeed from the Union in 1861, the counties with heavy German populations voted to remain in the Union.  Texas Confederates declared the hill country in rebellion – against the confederates.  There were open battles between pro-union and Confederate forces.  Scores of Germans were killed in the fighting, others were shot and hung.  Lynching of Germans was practiced. These episodes of Civil War history are not well known.   Germans being lynched, beaten and murdered because of their stand against slavery doesn’t seem to fit in well with subsequent narratives.

I have written before about Germans in the U.S. and recently about the Amana Colonies. We now have forgetting the contributions of America’s largest ethnic group because Germans and their contributions have become as American as hamburgers, hot dogs and good beer.

Ragnarok of the Big Trees

The Texas hill country is extraordinarily pleasant and we got a very green period because of lots of rain in the last couple of weeks. But my joy at encountering this beautiful landscape was tempered by oak wilt that has been killing the wonderful live oaks that give the hills their dominant feel. Oak wilt was identified in Wisconsin in the 1940s and has gradually been spreading.  It is s fungal disease spread both by a beetle and through natural root grafts among the oak trees.  So if one oak tree get the disease, it usually spreads to the neighbors.  I knew about oak wilt before, but seeing it in action here made me profoundly sad.  It seems to have had a bigger effect here in the Texas hill country than elsewhere, maybe because the live oaks form pure stands giving the beetles and the root grafts an easy way to go. 

You manage oak wilt, but it can be trouble. You have to be sure that the oaks have not sustained injuries that can attract the beetles or give the fungus spores an opening. The danger time for this is in the spring, until about July when summer heat kills exposed spores. This means that spring pruning of oaks is out.  You also have to be careful not to smack into the oaks with lawnmowers or other equipment.  If you have an infected oak, you have to get rid of it quick AND made sure the roots are not passing the fungus.  This means trenching between the infected oak and any others nearby.

When planting trees, it is a good idea not to create pure stands.  If oak trees are separated by other sorts of trees, the beetles and spores will spread more slowly or not at all.

The USDA page on oak wilt is here.

As long as I am feeling bad about the ragnarok of beloved big trees, I am also very upset by the emerald ash borer.  This rotten little bug is a native of Asia, first identified in Michigan in 2002.  Since then it has killed millions of ash trees and spread as south as Virginia, east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to the Great Plains.  The insect gets under the bark and quickly kills ash trees.

Emerald ash borers are not very mobile and left on their own they would probably remain a local problem.  Unfortunately, they hitch rides with us when we drive and especially when we transport infected firewood.   Never move fresh firewood any farther than you can walk.

The other one that bothers me is the hemlock wooly agelgid. This is another Asian import that was first reported in America in 1924.  This bug threatens the continued existence of hemlocks in the U.S. outside protected gardens.  Treatments are available but many of our nicest hemlock forests are gone already.  Hemlocks occupied a particular ecological niche in that they can grow in very deep shade. They used to fill an important role as understory trees and in shading little streams and keeping water temperatures lower.  Their ghost forests cannot do this.

On the plus side, we have developed American elms that are resistant to blight. We have better science available all the time. Maybe we can stay ahead of the bugs, but it will be a lot of work.

The top picture is a Texas hill country landscape.  You can see the dead trees in the foreground. Below that is what a healthy Texas live oak looks like. 

PS – I am informed that my reference to Ragnarok is too obscure and that some people might confuse it with some kind of video game. Ragnarok is from Norse mythology. It is the final struggle where the gods, such as Odin and Thor, are doomed. In German it is (also obscure) Gotterdamerung. A Wagner opera has that title and goes into the subject. The English “Twilight of the Gods” doesn’t really cover it, IMO. I understood when I wrote that it was hyperbole, but it seems that hyperbole is not really out of place if you risk losing species of trees that have dominated our landscapes since the end of the last ice age. 

San Antonio & the River Walk

The thing I liked most about San Antonio’s Riverwalk was that it seemed very natural because of the very large trees, mostly bald cypress and Montezuma cypress, and the lush plants along the route. Chrissy & I walked along the paths and then took the boat ride. The boat ride is worth it. The city is named after the San Antonio River, not the other way around.

Part of the river is natural, i.e. it has a mud bottom and part is created with a concrete channel. The river was a center of city life since the founding of the city, but the River Walk has been developing in something recognizable as predecessor of today’s version since the 1940s. In order to make that possible, the river needed to be controlled. San Antonio can get heavy rains and the river used to flood. Today the big investments along the river walk are protected by a flood gate system, which shunts flood waters into holding basins and an underground channel.

The climate and vegetation surprised me. It is more southern and Gulf shore-like than I thought. I always pictured the place as a more Western place, in the sense of drier or more of a prairie ecosystem. But there were palm trees, live oak, tropical looking rubber trees and the cypress I mentioned above all growing in enthusiastic profusion.  

I suppose that most people are less passionate about environment & trees and more about the many nice restaurants. It is very much alive with people, probably mostly tourists. We had lunch at a place called “Dick’s” where the waiters are encouraged to be wiseasses. That gives the place a special character. The food is just okay. In the evening we had some good steaks at the Texas Land & Steak restaurant.

Another surprising aspect of San Antonio is its Middle American feel. I expected the city to be a lot more Hispanic than it is. Maybe I was just in a particular part of town, but besides the sub-tropical plants and the Alamo, this place could have been in Ohio or Illinois.  In fact, what I have been noticing generally in my drive across America has been how American the country is. We talk a lot about our differences, but they pale before the things we have in common.

People have local pride, of course, and Texas has more local pride than any other place I went.  From my hotel window I saw Texas flags on top of many buildings. There are lots of other signs of Texas pride.  Even the waffle at our hotel was shaped like the State of Texas.

The top picture is the San Antonio River Walk. They put food coloring in to give it that green color. The next shows one of the many foot bridges over the river. The trees that are shaped like elm trees are actually Montezuma cypresses. There is an individual picture of one along side. Between that is a live oak. And at the bottom are the Texas waffle and flags.  Below is the Buckhorn Saloon, full of stuffed animals of the kind PETA doesn’t approve. There are even more in the rooms above.

Remembering the Alamo

We all know the stories of the Alamo. I say stories,plural, since there are lots of legends. Ever since I watched Davy Crockett when I was a little kid, I have enjoyed movies about the Alamo.The most elaborate was the one made by John Wayne, but I also recall a made for TV version with James Arness that was pretty good. The most recent one featured Billy-Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett. I have also seen dozens of documentaries and related programs. It is a big part of our historical memory. The legend has changed to accommodate changing sensibilities.  

No matter how you interpret or reinterpret it, however, the Alamo remains a story of heroism, sacrifice and bravery. The fewer than 200 volunteers who held the Alamo against more than the more than 3000 soldiers of the tyrant Santa Anna knew that they were facing steep odds & would have little or no chance of surviving the encounter.

Santa Anna seized power in Mexico City, abolished the constitution of 1824 and set about centralizing power in his own hands. Several states rebelled and Santa Anna put them down. The most distant was the rebellion in Texas. Santa Anna was a megalomaniac and he didn’t think he would have too much trouble dealing with the ragged and disorganized Texans. He came north himself with his and was impatient with the defenders of the Alamo, which helped build the legend. Instead of waiting for his big artillery to arrive, which could have reduced the Alamo to rubble w/o much loss of life among his own troops, Santa Anna ordered a frontal assault.  When some of his subordinates objected to the unnecessary loss of life, he reportedly compared his soldiers to chickens. It was their duty to die for him and he didn’t think the cost in their lives was not too much to pay for his glory. By giving the Texans a fighting chance he ensured a fight to be remembered.

It is interesting to think about how different history could have been with a few different decisions, and with a few people present or not. In this respect I am not thinking so much about the heroes of the Alamo but about Santa Anna. The Mexican constitution of 1824 was a good one.  It provided for more liberty and a more decentralized system. Santa Anna seized power and centralized the state in the same way that created problems in Latin societies throughout the 19th & 20th Centuries. Retaining the constitution of 1824 may or may not have prevented the succession of Texas, but imagine a century and a half of Mexican history with a more stable and liberal society and constitution. How different could have been the history of all North America.

The Alamo is smaller than it seems in the movies, which is no surprise since much of the battlefield is now occupied by various San Antonio buildings, including the hotel where we are staying.  It is also true that we just expect things that were important in history to be big.  The battle of the Alamo was not physically big compared with fights we saw in later history and not too much later in our own Civil War.  But the relatively small number of participants is one of the things that makes the Alamo so memorable.  We can know the participants as individuals. I am no expert on this and yet I can name several of the defenders and I know their stories, at least their legends. I suspect this is fairly common knowledge. I looked at the wall listing all their names. I could quickly read through the list from A-Z, along with where they came from.  This makes the history personal.

The pictures show the Alamo at night and the grounds.  The middle picture is a very nice live oak. The bottom picture is a Japanese monument to the heroes of the Alamo.  It goes to show the fame of the place and I thought it was a very good example of public diplomacy on the part of the Japanese to associate themselves with such a Texan and American symbol. 

750 Feet Under Ground

I knew Carlsbad Caverns well from looking at the old View Masters, as I wrote yesterday.  Their photos were/are better than mine.  They made the place look familiar.  The same was true when I first saw the Grand Canyon and Yosemite.  The good thing about the View Master was that we didn’t have very many slides and there was not as much competition from other things to watch or do.  I watched them over and over so I got to know all the pictures very well.

Nothing has changed in the Caverns since the View Master took the pictures fifty years ago.   Nothing much has changed for thousands or maybe millions of years.  Change is slow down here, 750 feet below the surface.  Water drips slowly and makes the rock formations you see in the pictures.  The little lumps on the formations are called “popcorn.”  They are formed by moisture from the air, which carries enough mineral that – with the many millennia – rock forms.  The rock down here is mostly limestone, the remains of the ancient sea I talked about in the previous post.

Unlike most caves, Carlsbad Caverns was not formed by flowing water like a stream.   Instead, water drained slowly from the caverns when the climate was wetter.  The “decorations” were created by the slow dripping.  The water carries carbonic acid, the same stuff in Coca-Cola.  It is a very weak acid, but it is enough to dissolve stone over long time.

The ranger explained all the above.  Carlsbad is not the biggest cavern in the U.S. but it is among the most interesting because of its unique characteristics or not being formed by flowing streams. This gives it lots of big and little rooms.  Caves formed by flowing streams usually are smoother and more uniform in the size of the rooms or chambers.  

They turned off all the lights during the program to show what a cave looks like in its normal state.  There is no way your eyes can adjust to zero light and all the wonders in stone are invisible.  In a very obvious way the cave we see is created by light we bring.  Someone asked about using color lights.  That may seen a little Disney-like, but the whole thing is a artistic creation of the light. The placement of the lights creates the reality.   The “natural” condition is pitch blackness.

There is no way I can get my brain around those millions of years and minute changes that lead to big things.  I noticed drops of water on the ends of some of the stalactites.  They weren’t dripping off and I don’t think they were going to drip off any time soon.  It will set there forming new rock formations.

Above is one of the formations. Chrissy said it looked like Gaudi architecture in Barcelona.  Below is the “lake” in the cave.  It is about the size of a jacuzzi.  It took thousands of years to fill to that depth.This is the place I remember best from the View Master. Something about the clear water stuck in my memory. The stone waterfall also makes an impression.

The Bottom of an Ancient Sea

We went down to Carlsbad Caverns.  This is another familiar place I visited for the first time.  I really saw a lot of the world – in 3D – with View Master.

I will post some actual cave pictures in the next entry.  I was also interested in the geography up top. There has been a fair amount of rain, so the landscape is unusually green. But this is generally a high and dry landscape with an interesting geology.  This used to sit at the bottom of a shallow ocean during the Permian Period. It was something like the Persian Gulf is today, very hot and dry on the land, but the undersea environment was very diverse.  This was a reef that supported all sorts of life.  Some, like sponges and algae, are familiar today.  Then there were the trilobites, my personal favorite. 

Lots of the animals, whole families of them, are extinct, since the Permian Period ended with the greatest mass-extinction of all time, wiping out the majority of earth’s species.  The Permian Period was the last period of the Paleozoic Era.  What followed was the Mesozoic, the age of dinosaurs.

The first two pictures are up top of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The bottom picture is alone I-10 in Texas.  Notice the rainbow. 

Deserts & High Chaparel

We drove south to Tucson and then east through the Sonora Desert.  The Sonora is the desert we all think of as THE desert.  It is the hottest of our American deserts, the one with all the cactuses that we know so well from the western movies.  We visited my cousin Elise and her husband Carl who live near Tucson.  I wrote re that last year here and here. The Tucson area is higher, greener and cooler than Phoenix, although both are in the same biome.

On the side is me with my new hat (purchased in Texas) in the desert. The hat is made of palm leaf and it really does keep the sun off and the head cool.  I like it.  

Just outside Tucson is the Saguaro National Park, where I took the pictures of the Sonora Desert vistas.  The saguaro cactus is the one with the arms that looks like a man flexing his muscles.  It takes many years for them to grow big enough to get arms.  You can tell you are in the Sonora when you see the saguaro, which grow naturally nowhere else.

Above and below are Sonora landscapes

Below – the flat area behind the sign is – believe it or not – the continental divide.  At some point out in that field, if you peed some would go toward the Pacific and some toward the Atlantic. We are actually at a fairly high elevation.  It is just a flat plateau.  I don’t know how exactly they can tell which way the water would flow. I always thought of the continental divide as a sort of ridge. 

North and west of the Sonora is the Mojave Desert, which I wrote about last April, with its characteristic brush and Joshua Trees.   You hit the Chihuahua Desert as you go east.  It is not true that the Taco Bell dog’s wild ancestors roamed this region.  The Chihuahua desert is theoretically less harsh, but it seems to have a little less interesting life.  I guess that the Sonora is very harsh, but fairly consistent, which allows varied life forms to develop.

Ancient Hunters, Modern Controversy

Between Clovis and Portales, New Mexico is the Blackwater Draw archeological site and museum.  It was closed, but the old guy running the place let me in anyway and we talked about archeology.  This is the place where they found the “Clovis Points,” a particular type of spear point used by the people who lived around here 13000 years ago.  They didn’t have bows and arrows.  Those came only around 3000 years ago.  Instead they used spear throwing sticks – an atlatl.  The stick essentially extends the arm and gives a man leverage to throw harder and farther than he could with just his muscle alone.
It gave our prehistoric ancestors enough firepower to drive the North American megafauna – mammoths, giant sloths, cave bears, saber tooth tigers etc – into extinction.

There is a lot of controversy about the Clovis people.  Nobody knows what they were like, since no human remains have been found.  Scientists used to just assume that they were ancestors of today’s Native Americans, but recent archeological discoveries, such as the Kennewick man (who looked a lot like Jean-Luc Picard), have called some of that into question.   

What happened in America 13000 years ago – before anybody around today was here – is a bigger issue today than you might think.  Some Native American creation myths hold that their people were original to the area or even sprung from the earth. Scientific evidence to the contrary bothers some people. Some have even gone so far as to essentially try to destroy evidence, or at least prevent its study. It is really a species of racism.

It strains credulity to believe that they particular native people inhabiting this place a hundred years ago were the same ones living here 12000 years ago. Linguistic and historical evidence alone would preclude that.  But evidently creationism dies hard no matter where it is rooted. And sometimes political correctness demands that we pretend to believe the believers.

I have a simple view of history. After around a century, when events have passed from living memory, ALL human achievement becomes the common heritage of all humans. In other words, we cannot take special credit or blame for anything that nobody alive actually remembers. I studied and appreciated ancient Greeks and Romans, despite probably being more related genetically to the barbarians that destroyed their civilization. It is great when someone from China can claim inspiration from Thomas Jefferson as I may from Lao Tzu. The Clovis people were our human ancestors. It really doesn’t matter who can or cannot make a silly claim to being genetically more similar.