Texas Landscapes: Cultural and Ecological

Mr. Shelton: Good morning.  Today the topic that I'm taking on is the cultural and ecological landscape of the beautiful State of Texas.  I think a good place to start is understanding our default understanding of Texas: Six Flags Over Texas.  I think it really defines the default understanding.  It has Texas in the middle and Spain and Mexico, the United States ‑we'll call it the southern union - and, there are a few Native Americans sprinkled around shooting out of every bush in this place.  I speak from experience because this is me here riding El Sombrero when I was a kid.

We're going to start talking about that default understanding by looking at the ecological zones and regions of Texas beginning with the Piney Woods.  This is part of the pine forest that extends all the way to the Atlantic coast line.  The long-leaf pine is particularly desirable and is very threatened at this time.  Actually, it's not just a pine forest, it's a mixed forest composed of oak, hickory and pine.

In addition to its ecological character this is a place where the Caddo live, truly the only urban dwelling Native American Texans that existed pre-Columbian times.  They weren't isolated, these folks were connected to the large super-cultures.  I find it very fascinating where they're geographically situated, in between the Mississippian culture, which had its monumental spaces, the ancestral Puebloans, architectural masters, and also the Mesoamerican world.  They're extremely connected to that, not only in trade but culture.

They kept their area looking like a hunting park. That was actually their form of agriculture and this area was the maintenance of a beautiful, pristine hunting park. They did so by the utilization of fire ecology, which we have largely abandoned in the modern age.  They understood that having frequent and mild fires rather than catastrophic wildfires is a way to keep this - our ecology - looking good.  Many of the plants require this ecological function known as serotonin.

Next door to this area is ‑ next door in Texas terms, that is ‑ is the Blackland Prairie.  If we travel I-35 north and south from San Antonio, you almost entirely run through the Blackland Prairie.  And there's some picturesque thought about the European settlers.  "Nature so pure that it almost is as good as if the hand of man had maintained it."  In fact, it had been maintained for centuries.  But hard to see that from their cultural point of view.

Only 1 percent of this is intact. Almost all of the ecological areas have a very small percentage remaining viable and intact as it was.  If you look at a prairie like the Blackland it might look like a large monoculture of grass, but in fact it's extremely biodiverse.  It's not just one grass, either.  There are four main grasses, the big and little blue stems, the switch grass and the Indian grass.  At finer grain you can see a lot of diversity.  And really, that 1 percent's spread around these really small remnant prairies. I truly believe that connecting these prairies, even in small ways, could add to the viability of them.

Adjacent to that is the Post Oak Savannah, a particularly beautiful area; a very picturesque part of Texas.  Seventy-five percent of it is under agricultural use today.  At the southwestern edge of it you find a relic landscape.  A relic landscape is a population of vegetation that is separated from a larger population; has found itself separated. Of course, in Texas those are clearly lost - lost landscapes.  This picture here of Dwarf Palmetto State Park is a lost palmetto condition.  Very familiar to us is also the Lost Pines of Bastrop.

There's a difference between relic and endemic.  Relic is a small subset of a large population.  Endemic is also segregated and isolated, but it's unique to that place. When we look at the Blackland Prairie and the Post Oak Savannah, those are examples of the process of interdigitation, which is like hands folded together.  You can see it's like fingers. What happens when you have two zones operating together like that?  They overlap in some places.  That process or that condition is known as an eco-town and they're particularly diverse and rich.  They share characteristics of the two. Contrast to that is an edge effect.  Strangely enough, the Camino Real is related to this ‑ the fire ecology of the Native Americans and interdigitation.

The Spanish settled mainly in Mexico, as we know, and they operated out of their headquarters in Mexico City.  That culture sat on top of some ancient cultures, Mesoamerica, Aridoamerica and Oasisamerica.  They were able to benefit from those previous connections I was discussing through the Caddo. They took advantage of those corridors that had been long maintained.  In fact, they co-branded those trails and called them the Camino Real.  That's how they were able to very quickly stave off the French when they found them on the east border of Texas.

I always found this fascinating.  If you look at where the Spanish chose to develop their cities by scratch, this city right here that we're in is the premium example of that.  Take a look at San Antonio - the Camino Real and then the ecological regions and the rivers.  They really chose the most diverse ecotonal landscape available to them in the presence of a reliable river, the San Antonio River.  I find that to be a really interesting analysis there.  What they did was create a small European town, which is fascinating, isn't it?

Now, you see here the acequia in San Antonio and a weir across the San Antonio River.  The Spanish used this to exact the value of the land.  By the way, they didn't know much about exacting value from the landscape.  They learned all this from a significant Arabic foundation.  See, the Arabs settled in southern Spain for over 700 years and had developed extreme competence at deriving value out of the landscape.  They were the original conquerors that set the template for how the Spanish would attack the American landscape.

It was a big year, 1492.  Not only did they discover the New World, the Spanish also accomplished the re-conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.  What that basically told the Spanish is that they had been selected to re-establish the Holy Roman Empire.  They really felt that was their prerogative.  I find this fort in Puerto Rico to be a really strong example, El Moro, of this Roman influence.

Now, the Edwards Plateau, the Spanish took advantage of this geology.  There's a ancient mountain range called the Quachita range, which I find fascinating, because it is now buried deep beneath Texas.  It came about from this pangea condition that we had. And, of course, the limestone shelf, the Balcones Escarpment sitting on top of that which sets up our wonderful karst condition in the Edwards Plateau where we have these beautiful caves and water resources that not only the Spanish enjoyed, but we enjoy, as well.

We have to be very careful with this as we look at sustainability.  This is a map of the Edwards Aquifer. It's quite a rechargeable and dynamic system.  We need to be careful developing around this as it is a very vulnerable and precious resource for us.

Edwards Plateau is a particularly picturesque landscape.  My old buddy, Frederick Law Olmsted, he liked this area.  He traveled through here in the mid-1800s and called it quite the natural specimen. One section of the Llano Escarpment or the Llano Uplift is particularly picturesque and beautiful, adding to the geological diversity of this area.  It really sets up some amazing vistas and views, doesn't it?  Yes, I love looking through the Hill Country.  It's quite a nice view. This brings us into this question of what's authentic because this is really authentic to Texans.

We have to ask ourselves about the continuity of the landscape, too.  We have to ask ourselves is this irrigation sustainable for the Edwards Plateau? I always ask myself what my old buddy, Frederick Law Olmsted, would think about this.  You know, would he like it? I know he'd hate it now. There are a few things that are native to this area that have run amok.  One of those things is the ash juniper.  This is an endemic plant ‑ or not endemic, let me use the right term - kind of a native plant that's gone wild.  That's because we control the wildfire and we don't have bison trampling it down. Our old buddy, the golden-cheeked warbler sure does like it.  He depends upon it for his survival.

The Edwards is full of relic landscapes.  The bald cypress coming up the river valleys with long fingers. That's relicked from its wider population.  We've another lost landscape, the lost maples in western Edwards Plateau.  The mescal bean of the Texas mountain laurels and other species that's from here. I particularly love this Anacacho orchid tree from the Edwards Plateau out west, only from the Anacacho Mountains here in Texas.

We're going to take on the Trans-Pecos.  You see these beautiful shelf structures?  I love the fact that this corridor of the Pecos River is really occupied by human beings.  If you walk along there, you'll find these kinds of etchings and drawings. This is really more than pictures, this is a library of their cultural knowledge.  If we knew how to understand it, it would inform us how to survive in this place. It was a human corridor where people transmitted themselves north and south and to Mesoamerica and beyond. They didn't build cities in particular and I can see why.  The architecture is provided by nature.  No reason to build in this area.

If we travel north of the Pecos we come to something built by people, a citadel known as Pecos Pueblo.  It's the gateway to the Pueblo world.  I particularly love Taos Pueblo, which is on the Rio Grande so I claim it for Texas.  Taos is a beautiful convergence of human occupation and nature.  You'll find that the massing and structure of these pueblos mimics take on characteristics of the natural environment.  The beautiful, sacred Blue Lake transmits its water through the Red Willow Creek that goes dissecting right through the community from the divine through the community back into the divine and on to Texas.  This is memetic architecture.

Now, of course, the Trans-Pecos is really just a part of the Chihuahuan Desert.  We ask ourselves ifthis desolation?  My grandfather asked that, in fact.  He had a friend that went through New Mexico and remarked upon their tag line, the Land of Enchantment.  He said, "The Land of Enchantment, hell, that's the Land of Starvation." It is actually a very diverse place in contrast to what he thought; one of three of the most diverse desert ecosystems in the world.  There are 3,500 species that occupy the Chihuahuan and a whopping 1,000 of those are endemic, unique to the Chihuahuan Desert, almost one-third of the plants you see are endemic.

Of course, the old pronghorn.  I have to throw him in there.  This is the fastest land animal in North America.  Sea monsters used to live in this area in a shallow cretaceous sea.  As time went by, of course, the sea withdrew from the land.  As the sea withdraws you get a landscape in transition, such as swamps.  Prairies coming up. I find it fascinating that 18,000 years ago this sea was significantly further offshore than today.

Of course, a landscape in transition in the Trans-Pecos underwent desertification.  I think that led to a lot of the biodiversity.  My favorites are these desert hibiscus.  Of course, hibiscus are generally swamp plants. But these fully adapted to desert living.

The Trans-Pecos could be described as desert seas and sky islands.  And it operates much like an ocean condition with the islands.  I would say it really sets up quite the island paradise.  Of course, instead of coconut trees, we've got beautiful Mexican pines and bigtooth maples and madrones. There's water in the desert, believe it or not, in significant amounts.  A wetland in the Chihuahuan Desert or any southwestern desert is called a cienega.  Perhaps many of you have seen pictures of the beautiful cienega at Balmorhea.  That's a lot of water.

There's also some swamps on the gulf prairie and in the marshes along the coast.  The big player here is not the desert, but the Gulf of Mexico.  Wetlands in this area are called resacas.  They're beautiful conditions that lead to the diversity in this area.  You've also got the transient, dynamic coastline that has a very fragile and beautiful coastal dune ecosystem. I wonder how long that's going to last.

We also have the Rio Grande, which used to be known as the Rio De Las Palmas by the Spaniards.  The bottom 80 miles used to be covered with these beautiful Mexican palm trees.

There's only one little sanctuary left and then there the resaca lake at the foot.  This area's undergone a significant amount of agricultural conversion which leads to a lot of fragmentation.  In addition to this fragmentation, this changed the nature of the prairies out there as woody encroachment.  I don't know who this guy Woody is but he's making a lot of trouble down there.

Actually, this area's just got a rowdy neighbor.  It's known as the South Texas Brush Country.  It's got a lot of plants growing there, but they're plants that stick, sting and stink.  That's how they're described. This is really just a dense, tangled buffer here.  It's ideal for wildlife to sustain itself.  Not so good for the Mexican army, though.  They did get through this area on their way to San Antonio to do their bidding.  But really, they weren't relying on the South Texas brushland to keep the Anglos out.  They employed a plan of cultural buffering.  They, as we know, brought in many cultures from Europe and set them up in the way of the Anglos. They also preferred to have Europeans that were Roman Catholic.  That was an additional cultural barrier that they utilized.

Cross Timbers is up north and it's a beautiful transitional woodland. I find it fascinating that this is the transition that goes all the way to the Great Lakes. This is the transition from the woodland to the east and grass lands to the west.  Here we go, the rolling plains.  This is called the Big Country, also called West Texas.  It is 444 miles from Abilene to El Paso, so is it really West Texas?  To me, this is the land of small towns.  You can see along the horizon every 20 miles there's another water tower. I also find that the county courthouse has a particular prominence in this area.  They really stand out like nowhere else to me.  That's just my opinion.  And this sets up the small-town feel, you know, the thing that we don't really have in our current approach to subdivisions.  I find it interesting that 85 percent of Texas is classified as rural country yet only 5 percent of the population comes from such a place.  I'm from this area and a small town.  I didn't know I was so unique.

Oh, yes, don't forget about the cotton, seas of cotton. The old cotton - these hulking machines that we see on the horizon.  Thankfully, we don't have any more hulking machines on the horizon out there.  Well, there's wind turbines.  I don't know why they didn't come up.

We're going to move on to the High Plains.  You can see this sharp contrast between the High Plains to the left and the rolling plains to the right.  It's called the Llano Estacado.  The cap rock there is a example of a edge effect - very strong.  You can see the instantaneous transition from one to the next.  Awesome.

Now, I want everyone to question their default understanding of the Texas landscape.  Thank you very much.


speaker steve shelton Speaker Steve Shelton, Chief Executive, Landscape and Garden, Inc., Austin. Photo by member John Gullett.