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“He knows God rightly who knows Him everywhere.”
~Meister Eckhart, Sermon V
Nowadays in summer I keep my hair like I did when I was a child. Back then, near the end of school, my parents would take me to the barber to get a “burr”—a title which perhaps came from the sound of the electric clippers humming so close to one’s skull, perhaps because one’s scalp feels somewhat exposed and chilled, or perhaps because we kids who had them resembled the cap of a burr oak acorn. In any case, it meant I was left with about an eighth of an inch of hair.
The barber shop, with its iconic twirling/swirling pole of red, white, and blue stripes on the storefront, was next to the King’s Rexall Drugstore and in the same shopping center as the Benjamin Franklin 5&10 and Buddies grocery store. The choice of barbers was either a one-eyed septuagenarian or a sadistic, unnaturally flame-haired woman. Most children opted for the woman since the one-eyed man would make his glass eye wander … too spooky and we were all worried about an even cut. Looking back, I can’t say for sure that the woman was truly sadistic or had any ill feelings toward man or boy; however, no child getting his summer burr left the shop without a divot, scrape, or a bloody patch or two. The reason for this grooming ritual was its ease (no reason to worry about combs), and to clear the way for parents to find ticks stuck to the children’s scalps in the evening after their day spent in the woods.
As a child, I was in luck, having grown up just below the Lake Lewisville Dam, and only a half-mile or so from what we then called the “floodgates”—now the Lake Lewisville Environmental Learning Area or LLELA. The area is not unique in Texas; all of our lakes, except Caddo Lake, are reservoirs, built for our insatiable thirst for watering our lawns, football fields, fountains, cattle and horses, and last, our selves. Lake Lewisville is one of seven repositories for the Dallas-Fort Worth area, now sprinting its way toward a population of seven million folk. When building these reservoirs, the Army Corps of Engineers must put aside a large tract of land along the river on the opposite side of the dam for flood control, so if lake levels are ever dangerously high, they can release enough water to ease the pressure on the dam. Many enjoy boating, waterskiing, and fishing on the watery side of the dam, but an unanticipated benefit is also the creation of floodplains.
The “floodgates” of Lake Lewisville was almost 2000 acres of floodplain along the Elm Fork, below the spillway that no one could build on, which left it open for motocross fanatics, small game hunters, and those who could while away their day and night by fishing. I’m sure there was some meanness that went on there in the late 1960s and 1970s, though I wasn’t privy to it. I have no doubt there were trees pointlessly cut down, animals shot for the hell of it, and a dynamite cap or two dropped in the deeper pools to scoop up the stunned fish and bigger chunks of the dead ones. The floodgates, though, was our closest, open land in a rural town about to be lost to sprawl. Most small Texas towns that have been swallowed by sprawl end up no differently than Lewisville—just look up and down the I-35 corridor from Dallas-Fort Worth to Austin. Any sense of their individuality has been blurred by the monotony of the same housing developments and retail offerings that one needn’t worry too much about missing because the same stores will miraculously appear twenty miles down the road.
The “floodgates” was our wilderness in the midst of sameness. For me, it was where I learned to drink; saw two people going at it between their closely parked cars (I surmised later that they too imagined the floodgates as an unpeopled area); and learned to jump my brother’s Yamaha 125 Enduro off of small but heavily eroded hills. It was also where I learned to ball stink bait on a treble hook, tie a sinker about a foot above, and softly toss it into a bubbling pool of sandy brown water; where I learned to jump off the Topeka-Atchison rail bridge safely; and where I learned to spend hours, if not days, alone.
In Lewisville of the 1970s, it was acceptable to encourage, if not toss out, one’s kids during the summer days. Dads were at work; moms might be too, or if they were home, they’d tire of you quickly. My siblings were much older, so between the ages of eleven and fifteen, I had a lot of free range during the summers. The kids on my street were fine for play, a little street baseball, tackle-the-man-with-the-football, or blow up a plastic toy or two with leftover firecrackers. None of them held the appeal of fishing and walking alone at the floodgates though.
I was a Boy Scout flunkie—taking oaths and fitting in with any group have never been a particular interest of mine, but during those summers, I began my foray into natural history without any return of merit badges. My dad had taught me the local names of plants and critters, but I began to deepen my understanding of what was around me by learning their scientific names and, more importantly, how the plants were part of a habitat, how the animals got by too, how there was an ecology around me I had been ignorant of. At some point during the first summer after I really took to tramping around, I figured out that the Corp of Engineers had rerouted the Elm Fork below the dam. The old channel held water in the mildest of rains and stayed boggy year ‘round—the burr oaks, hackberry and sycamore towered over the willow and box elder. Where the old channel met the new channel just above the railroad bridge made for the best fishing because it was the deepest hole. If I got up early or stayed late enough, I could hear barred owl calls down the river, great horned owls from the forest high above the river; once I saw a screech owl chasing a sparrow across an open grassy area. I saw sand bass sometimes leap after prey in the rocky ripples of the Elm Fork. I traced the prints and scoured the leftovers from a raccoon’s midnight meal. Summer heat was never an issue because the river was right there with a particular bank that was a good diving spot.
While my early naturalist studies were important, learning the floodgates was the result of a long-term effort at a relationship—returning again and again, seeing something again and again, living it again and again. In this way, a place becomes an other with whom you give and it takes in; it gives and you take in. Any of those who have been in one place for years and given themselves to it, knows what this means. When you’ve achieved this relationship, other possibilities open up—deeper connections, more allegorical stories, and times that, I have to admit as I write this, are ineffable.
My third summer of spending time at the floodgates, I was an awkward fourteen-year-old boy and had begun to prefer reading Khalil Gibran and Roy Bedichek to watching Gilligan’s Island reruns or tossing around the question of which of our female classmates had blossomed the most. My walks had become more about quiet observation and less about adventure. I adolescently pondered over Gibran quotes, “ … forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair,” or as Bedichek writes, “ Perhaps there’s a survival of sun worship hidden down deep [in some of us] from long ago ….”
I have no idea the day it happened, but I have a good idea of the place, a small clearing in a dense elm grove. I had been sitting on a downed log for an hour or so, reading then watching, reading then watching. A thought began to take me that I wasn’t so separate from this place, that maybe the hand I held out in front of my eyes was not so distant from the leaf-covered black prairie soil behind it. As I looked around the grove, it all began to shimmer, blur, and blend into a kind of light, a kind of ember glow from thing to thing. For a brief time, I was taken not away from, but fully into this place. The moment passed, and of course, at the time I had no words for the experience. The experience frightened me some, and I spent the rest of the day at the floodgates in a sort of daze. By the evening, I began to wonder exactly what happened, and later if it happened at all.
Thirty odd years later, I have to admit a certain reluctance to tell you this story; it sounds a bit silly to the older, more critical me. I’ve often wondered at times if I have made up this memory—that I needed some kind of reason in my life now for being so intent about my time in wilderness, scholarly study about the human/non-human relationship, and naturalist studies. Maybe my Texan hyperbole with storytelling has let me make more of it than I ever felt at the time. Perhaps age too has played a part in molding and shaping what actually took place, so please understand, reader, it may not have happened. Obviously I’m ambiguous about this event, so I’m telling you it may be a lie; for myself, whether it happened or not is less important than what led to and resonates with the possibly fictitious memory.
Much of my adult life has been spent finding a way to return to the “floodgates,” whether it was in the Smoky Mountains, backpacking in a rhododendron forest; in South Carolina, wading through brackish marshes; in Flagstaff, hiking above treeline on Mt. Humphries or descending into furnace depths of the Grand Canyon. Now that I’m back in north central Texas, I’m still returning to the “floodgates,” sometimes to the actual place and sometimes other places nearby. Why? For that feeling, even with all its ambiguity. Whatever that feeling is … it can only take place when we feel we are in a more than human landscape. To earn that feeling takes time with a place, giving it your attention, study, and effort. It takes a naturalist’s knowledge to begin to peel away the ignorance and arrogance of our humanity and begin to see a place on its terms. It takes patience to wait and watch until the names and science begin to drift away because now that you know them, words and ideas are not enough. When we get there, eventually these places write us—take us in as part of their story. More thoughtful folk might call it understanding, religious ones god’s creation, and others, simply, love.
I’m often asked about my writing, preservation and conservation work, “Why do you want to save this place?” Sometimes, it’s just an old post oak in a vacant lot about to be bulldozed; sometimes, it’s a remnant grasslands or forest. I’ll smile and say, “It’s someone’s floodgates.” When you’ve had this feeling, it isn’t just about saving your place. You care for all those other than human places with slivers and hints of wilderness, because you remember your experiences, because you learned all those places matter, and because there might be a kid with enough summers and evenings free to wander, learn, listen, and maybe even make a connection.
Nowadays when I run my hand over my head in the late spring and feel the length of my thinning hair, I’ll head straight to my barber in Denton and ask for a burr; he’s old enough to know what I mean. In the chair, I’ll dream a bit about the coming weekend and walking below Lake Lewisville dam. I’ll mentally list the critters and plants I hope to see; I’ll chart in my mind the trails I’ll take to visit my swimming and fishing haunts of the past; and as the barber whisks away the hair, dusts me with a bit of talcum powder, and pulls off the apron covering me, I’ll think about how long it will take to find that elm grove, what it will take to make even an uncertain memory present.