Monday, November 23, 2009

Blue Grama Grass

In the cloudless sky the September sun burned the land with its fiery ring, branding all living things in the desert whether capable of conscious thought or driven only by the instinct of survival. The rains had stopped weeks ago and now Bina trudged an unmarked path between bald earth and the occasional carpet of the flag like blue grama grass.

Blue Grama is a perennial grass native to the Trans-Pecos. It grows in the hot lowlands of the Chihuahua Desert to the high forested areas of the mountain peaks. It grows throughout North America from Alberta and Manitoba to the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains and Midwest, thriving in a broad range of topography and soil types.
The plant height rarely exceeds 15 inches but the roots can grow as deep as five feet and outward as much as 16 inches, watering and aerating the soils as it burrows. The grass is graze, drought and cold resistant. It offers high protein for livestock tends not to freeze and uses water extensively when available but is capable of going dormant during low or no water conditions.

One way the Blue Grama propogates is with seeds and does best when they are dispersed by wind, birds, insects or mammals beyond the root reach of neighboring adult plants, as adult plants tend to exploit moisture in the seedling’s root zone.
But more often, Blue Grama propagates via a process known as vegetative reproduction. Tiny stems at the base of the plant known as tillers can produce multiple stems and thick tuffs with bushy seed heads from a single seedling indefinitely.

Vegetative Reproduction is more an expansion of biomass of the individual plant rather than the creation of a new organism. The tillers at the base of the plants are new individuals except they are clones, new in every aspect, except genetically. How this process appears to reset the aging clock remains a mystery.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Santa Elena Canyon

Bina and the River that Saved Her

They called her Bina, the Apache name for music maker. She had been playing her flute under a cottonwood tree when they muscled her on the bare back of the palomino. She remembered the taught flank muscles of the horse flexing between her legs as a dark arm wrapped around her, finger nails piercing her side. They galloped across the moon lit desert south toward the river and now three years later she glanced one final time at the mouth of the canyon and the raging waters that had set her free.

The geography of the Big Bend region of Texas over the past 250 million years was formed by a series of compression, volcanism and tension events that created mountain terrain which lent itself to a high degree of erosion. Rapid run-off and flash flooding after thunderstorms is the strongest form of erosion but erosion by way of naturally occurring corrosive chemicals like carbonic acid is also a powerful agent in the geological formation of the area. Calcite which forms the bulk of the limestone in the Big Bend is especially susceptible to break down by carbonic acid.

The formative period of the Santa Elena Canyon likely began about two million years ago, a relatively short period in Earth’s geologic time. The cliffs of the eight mile long, 1500 foot deep canyon run along a fault line. The effect of running water, carbonic acid and the oxygen of water corroding the iron sulfate in the igneous rocks of the canyon, coupled with fault line mechanics eroded and cut deep into the earth’s crust and formed this canyon segment in the watercourse of the Rio Grande.

A series of basin and range topography existed along the future Rio Grande corridor and once the erosion sediment of the higher lands filled the basins, a single flowing conduit linked the Rocky Mountain run-off with the Gulf of Mexico, creating a 1950 mile long waterway and our country’s youngest major river system.

Evidence of pre-historic human settlement in the Santa Elena area date back 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. More recently in the 16th century when Spanish explorers came to the area, they filed written reports with the Spanish Monarchy describing a group of hunter-gatherers known as the Jumano. These tribes may have been related to the Puebloan civilization of Arizona and New Mexico.

Mescalero Apache and Commanche became dominant in the area in the 18th and 19th century. These tribes crossed the Rio Grande both in trade and in warfare with the Spanish and the Jumano.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mammatus Clouds

One week into October a line of thunderstorms formed in the Del Norte Mountains of the Trans-Pecos. Dark anvil shaped thunderheads obscured the tops of Mount Ord and Cathedral Mountain. The slanted penetrating rain sheets could be seen from the town below and then as the late evening sun broke though the thinner clouds in the west a blanket of strange sagging gray puffs of laden visible moisture reflected oddly in the dying light and descended into the town’s valley as if a symbol of some new world chaos.

Mammatus or Mammatocumulus clouds are a rare pouch-like cloud structures that form in sinking air usually in the aftermath or on the underside of a thunderstorm where distinct temperature gradients, moisture and wind shear are present and most often when cumulonimbus anvil clouds have formed. The name is derived from the Latin word Mamma meaning udder or breast as some believe these clouds resemble a woman’s breast.

The opaque and lumpy lobes cluster and can cover the sky for miles and each lobe last an average of ten minutes before evaporation dissolves them. They are usually composed of ice crystals or a combination of ice and water.

Inside the cumulonimbus storm clouds, updrafts carry heavy wet air to the top until the momentum is lost and this subsiding air spreads horizontally and accumulates at the base of the cloud. Sagging with water or ice these air-suspended bosoms dangle and cluster in the sky and occasionally form the rare Mammatus cloud.

At least ten theories exist on exactly how they form but because of their rarity and chance sightings observational information remains thin. Much knowledge on micro-physical cloud processes lie on the unknown outside edge of the scientific frontier.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

White Thorn Acacia

Bina lowered her head. The blisters on her feet ached and she guided her finger across the bubbles of skin. Her stomach growled. She followed the run-off contours of the dry arroyo with her eyes down the bare banks and across the browns of the desert into the setting sun. Clusters of red-green bean pods dangled from the limbs of the white thorn acacia that shaded her. She looked up. Food she thought. Good food.

Acacia Constricta also known as White Thorn Acacia or Mescat Acacia is a native plant in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas. The red-maroon barked shrub tree can grow to heights of 15 feet and to keep grazers at bay, grows one to two inch white thorns from its gray colored branches. Often when there is no grazing or pruning the plant will not grow thorns as it is expensive in materials for the plant to manufacture.

The Acacia is part of the legume family and thus a nitrogen fixer. Legume family root nodules host bacterias known as diazatrophs that convert nitrogen in the air (N2) into ammonia (NH3) which is secreted into the soil and used by plants to biosynthesize nucleotide for DNA and amino acids for proteins. Farmers often plant legumes like soybeans and alfalfa as one of their rotational crops to recharge their field soil.

The bi-pinnate compound leaves of the white thorn acacia fall in drought and occasionally in winter. The plant usually flowers in spring and again in late summer after the monsoon season. It produces a bright yellow fluff ball as its flower and clusters of green-red seed pods with high protein beans contained in a sweet fibrous seed sheath. Oddly though, the plant produces little nectar or pollen and thus has few visiting insects.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


The morning sun warmed the moist air rising from the melting snow of the Stockton Plateau. Particulates not usually found in this region had been swept in by the storm. Now the particulates enhanced condensation of the air just above the ground as the snow lost its whiteness in a great gray blanket that covered the land.

Fog is a cloud that touches the ground. Water vapor, a colorless gas, becomes visible when it condenses and forms tiny water droplets. The gas turning into liquid or the water vapor becoming water is the visible spectrum that the human eye detects. The density of this air and water combination is the key to determining whether scientists consider it fog or mist. Fog reduces visibility to less than 1km while mist reduces visibility to I KM or more.

The temperature difference between the dew point or condensation point and the ambient air temperature is usually reduced with colder temperatures. Fog most often occurs when this temperature differential is less than 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

The process of water vapor turning into water droplets occurs in saturated air with a relative humidity of 100 per cent but can be less when particulates especially hygroscopic or water seeking particles like carbon emissions produce a condensation nuclei that enhances water vapor to condense at a lower relative humidity.

The foggiest places in the world are not found in the Trans-Pecos, but occasionally when storms or fronts sweep in wet cold air along with particulates from pollution sources such as vehicles and smoke stacks, together with other naturally occurring aerosols like soil dust lifted up from wind, the combination can increase the possibility of fog.

Fog on the California coast in Marin County occurs an average of 200 days per year where cooler dry land air meets the wetter warmer air above the Pacific Ocean. It is now believed that the sea weed known as kelp emits iodine particulates producing the condensation nuclei that enhances fog to form in air with less than 100 per cent relative humidity.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Pitaya Strawberry Cactus

Bina Heads North

Bina wiped the tears from her cheeks and tried to remember now her family name: Johnson, Mayfield, Grosse, Simmons. She turned away from the canyon at the river and walked knowing somewhere north and a long day’s horseback ride the adobe house that her parents settled in 1862 was still lying in the cut between the mountains they called Green Valley. She remembered the day they arrived on the horse and wagon and the frigid cold with the wind pitching dust in the air. Madrid, Hernandez, Leyva, she stopped and picked a red fruit from a cluster of cactus tubes.

Pitaya, is the fruit of the strawberry pitaya cactus species that grows in loose ribbed spiny cylindrical clusters of 3 to twenty inches tall in the hot low desert region of the Trans-Pecos. The bright green plant, wrinkled-looking in the dry season is a perennial meaning that it grows and blooms over the spring and summer months and then dies back in winter, returning in the spring from its root-stock rather than seeding as an annual plant does. Most perennials live longer than two years and almost all trees are perennials.

A favorite of hikers in the Trans-Pecos, the pitaya is rich in Vitamin C, phosphorus and antioxidants and contains very little saturated fat. The aroma and taste of the fruit is similar to strawberries. It also has powerful laxative properties and can cause pseudohematuria, a harmless reddening of the urine and feces.

The strawberry pitaya is a vascular plant having lignified tissues for processing water, minerals and photosynthesis. Throughout the warm season it blooms in a variety of flower colors primarily red, pink and purple. It is considered a succulent, a shrub and is a native plant. The latin taxonomy name is Echinocereus enneacanthus meaning hedgehog candle.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Mormon Tea

“Howdy Charlie, Reno. Come on in,” Kate said. She held the door open and the two dusty cowboys walked in. Reno fingered the brim of his hat and Charlie looked around the large appointed room finally holding his gaze on the chandelier. “Would you fellers like some tea, while you wait?” Kate asked. “Tea?” Charlie asked. “Yes, tea, Jack Tea, Jack Mormon’s tea."

The Mormon Tea plant, also known as Pocotillo, Cowboy Tea, Tuttumpin, Ephedra and scientifically as Ephedra Viridis is a perennial shrub that is common in the Trans Pecos. Growing up to four feet tall, the branched broom like plant flowers in March and April. It is a vascular plant meaning that it has lignified tissues allowing the conduction of water, minerals and photosynthetic products to circulate within the plant tissue. These basic minerals and nutrients remain in the plant while the water is transpired through the stomata and into the atmosphere. Circulating resources allows the plant to grow larger than most non-vascular plants. Trees, ferns, moss and flowering plants are vascular.

Natives of the Trans-Pecos used the dried and powdered twigs in poultices for burns and ointment for sores. The tea was used for stomach and bowel disorders.

The plant contains ephedrine a stimulant and has an effect on the body similar to adrenaline. Ephedrine has been found in other plants related to Mormon Tea around the world and the chemical has been used in modern pharmacology as a diuretic, decongestant, appetite suppressant and to treat hypotension associated with anesthesia.

In 1885 a Japanese chemist was the first to isolate ephedrine. It has been used in Chinese herbal medicine for centuries and may have been the substance known as Soma as mentioned in the Hindu sacred text Rig Veda.

Early white settlers in our country used the plant to treat venereal disease and was sometimes served in houses of ill repute.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Giant Yucca

She stood under the Giant Yucca, a sliver of shade in the mid day sun. The chard of her deer hide garment rippling lightly in the breeze. It had been seven days since she had slipped away from the tribe. Three winters she had slept in the mud wattle, three years since she had seen her mother. And now at 13, she stared into the bush of the Yucca in the gravelly soil of the desert scrub and wept.

The Giant Yucca also known as Yucca faxonia, Giant Dagger, Spanish Bayonet and Palma Samandoca is the largest of the yuccas and grows prolifically in the Trans-Pecos. The upright single trunks can reach a circumference of six feet and some thirty feet tall. Sharp pointed leaves protect the terminal stalk and the creamy white bell shaped flowers attract a wide variety of animal life including, big horn sheep, bees and humming birds.

Indians roasted the young flowers and the reddish fruit pods for food. Vaqueros and cowboys have cut the trunks during droughts in parched lands to let cattle chew on the inner stalk.

Giant Yuccas generally grow in elevations above 3000 feet and prefer desert scrub or grasslands. The Dead Horse Mountains near Black Gap Wildlife Management Area provide an ambitious display of the Giant Yucca plant community. Associated species in this part of the Trans-Pecos include gramas, mariola, lechuguilla, sotols, cenizos, acacias and mimosas.

Recently the City of Alpine, Texas was awarded a Champion Tree Certificate for the Giant Yucca growing at the southeast end of City Hall. The plant measured over 23 feet high, a crown spread of 10 feet and a trunk circumference of six feet. It is the largest know Giant Yucca in Texas.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stink Gourd

“Ti-ah pi-ah” which means in Kiowa, “Ready to go ready to die,” is the preamble of the Gourd Dance. The men form an inner circle and the women an outer circle. They shake painted gourds and the Pow-Wow begins.

The Kiowa Gourd Dance was outlawed by the federal government in 1899. By the 1930’s it was only a memory but later the Kiowa tribe began to practice again and today along with the abundance of wild gourd, the Gourd Dance is back.

Although there are many varieties of gourd, the Wild Gourd also known as Stink Gourd or Buffalo Gourd abounds in the Trans-Pecos. A member of the cucumber family and related to pumpkin, squash and melons, the stink gourd emits a strong smell when its leaves or vines are crushed. Some have likened the smell to strong body odor with a touch of garlic.

A yellow orange 5-lobed bell flower blooms from June to August adding an amber palette to the triangular gray-green leaves and hairy trailing perennial vines. Underground a taproot finds nourishment from the soil and produces green-striped baseball size fruit that eventually season to a pale yellow-crème. The gourd fruit is poisonous to humans and toxicity varies by season. The plants also absorb pesticides and herbicides and therefore should never be eaten.

Gourd art involves painting the dried gourd shells. Pointillism is a common gourd painting technique. Gourd decoration by pyrography or the use of hot tips to burn designs into gourds has been practiced for hundreds of years in Africa, Asia and by Native Americans.

Along with being an object of art and the principle instrument in the Gourd Dance, medicinally the Stink Gourd has been used by Native Americans in tea to speed labor at childbirth, crushed leaves mixed with saliva as a poultice for headaches and the peeled dried root to induce vomiting and as a laxative.

Checkered Garter Snake

The sun burned now across the Rim Country. Sanchez lay quiet. His partner walked back from the tree line to the flat hard dirt near the smoldering fire. “Ponga la pie,” his partner said. He thought to kick his feet, but saw they had not moved since daybreak. “Wake up Sanchez,” Nothing. “You’re either dead or there’s a snake in your bag.” He noticed a slight movement from Sanchez’s covered toes. “You’re not dead.” He waited then pushed the brim of his hat up, took the pistol from his holster and in one quick movement grabbed the sleeping bag and pulled. He shot once, twice, three times at the snake slithering across the earth then realized it was only a garter. Sanchez sighed.

Garter snakes, named after their resemblance to garter belts, are the most widely distributed reptiles in North America with a range from Nicaragua to Alaska. There are many species of garters but the Checkered Garter Snake is most common in the Trans Pecos. They are easily recognized by their long yellow back stripe, fainter side stripes and symmetry of black blotches.

Garters are carnivorous and eat a wide variety of any animal they can subdue including slugs, toads, rodents, leeches and lizards.

Garters are gregarious and hang out in cool dark communal dens during brumation. They communicate through hormone transport also known as pheromones, odors which activate behaviors such as reproduction.

Males are known to emit both male and female pheromones during mating season. Intense mating rituals include snake balls that can have as many as one hundred males and one female wrapped into a Medusa-like orb.

Garters emit a musky smell when alarmed and recent discoveries suggest they produce a mild neurotoxin known as three finger poison. Unlike pit vipers, the secreting gland and the rear fangs lack an efficient delivery system. A garter snake bite rarely causes pain or inflammation.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Bois d'arc

The yellow wooded bow was pulled half its length back and with the arrow centered the deft hand released the string propelling a shaven flint rocket through the air catching the rabbit almost instantly below the soft puffy head in the hard heat of the Solitario in west Texas.

The Bois D’arc tree also knows as the Osage Orange or the Horse Apple, because of the softball size chartreuse fruit that horses, cows and squirrels love, grows gnarly and strong throughout the Trans-Pecos region. Perhaps its first use among humans came among the Native Americans who found its strong yet pliable limbs excellent for bow making. French traders first encountered the weapon in the middle Mississippi Valley and gave the wood of the arc its name. A trading post in the nearby mountains was known by Frenchmen as Aux Arc, which later transmogrified into English as Ozark.

Years before the invention of barbed wire, Bois d’arc trees were used as fences as they grew thorny and thick and were described as horse high, bull strong and hog tight. By 1850 Kansas was said to have more than 50,000 miles of Bois d’arc hedges.

Researchers at Texas A&M University have recently isolated high concentrations of antioxidants in the Isoflavones found in the Bois d’arc fruit. Antioxidants may help against heart disease, cancer, ease menopause and improve bone health. The particular isoflavone found in both the soybean and the horse apple are believed to protect neurons in the brains of Alzheimer patients from the toxic effects of amyloid beta peptide which may be the triggering agent for Alzheimer’s Disease.

Soybeans contain less than one tenth of one percent of the isoflavone compound, while the Bois d’arc fruit contains nearly 10 per cent.

To date, the precise chemistry of why the isoflavone protects neurons against the peptide agents of Alzheimer’s and how the bois d’arc fruit evolved to produce such hi quantities of isoflavones is unknown.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Texas and the Gray Wolf

The man moved across the rock floored porch and pulled the door open. The spring stretched and screeched and he took a step in, then back out, as his spurs jiggled. He spit across the porch, then walked back inside. The merchant behind the counter of the Castelon Trading Post studied the man, his leather hat and the drool of tobacco running down his unshaven chin.

“Paying two bits for Mexican grays,” the Merchant said.

“Good, I got a 110 on old Jack out there,” the trapper replied, as he nodded toward the burro tied outside at the post.

One of the last sightings of a Gray Wolf in Texas was near Castelon in the Big Bend National Park in 1971. The gray wolf also known as lobo or Mexican Wolf are the largest sub-species of the wolf family.

Their extermination in the continental United States was considered a victory by those who saw the animal as a threat to livestock.

Heavy trapping in the southwest in the first half of the 20th century kept the wolves population in check but the animal's innate ability to find dead things made them vulnerable to an even more efficient form of lupidide - strychnine poisoning. The heavy use in the 1960’s of this deadly crystalline alkaloid sprinkled on carcasses was the final blow to this once thriving species.

Their population exploded in the second half of the 19th century as the hunting of buffalo by European immigrants left thousands of carcasses to rot on the Great Plains.

The gray wolf has 42 teeth, an almost four inch square paw print with teardrop toes and generally weighs 85-100 lbs with large jaws. The force of their biting pressure has been measured at 1800 psi.

Wolves have the greatest range of any large mammal. Their heritage is pre-historic and tales of this animal can be found in Russia, China, Peru, India and all of Europe. The first domesticated dogs came from wolves.

In 1996 Canadian wolves were released into the Yellowstone National Park as part of the Environmental Protection Act 10J rule which finances the reintroduction of endangered species.
Today they can also be found in the White Mountain area of Arizona and western New Mexico and one was recently found north of El Paso, dead on the side of a highway.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


They only boiled at night. The smoke trail easily seen on a windless day. Tomorrow they would break camp and move the factory again. Ricardo dumped another basket of candelilla into the hot vat of water and acid. The fumes stung his nostrils and his eyes blurred. “Hold it right there,” they heard the voice in the darkness say. “Los Rinches,” Ricardo yelled and the team of four quickened for the river.

For over a hundred years the candelilla plant, a shrubby blue-green spurge with a dense cluster of erect leafless stems has been harvested for wax. Native to the Trans-Pecos and Northern Mexico, attempts at farming the plant has failed. Only the wild candelilla produces commercial quantities of candelilla wax. Smuggling of the wax across the Rio Grande to capture the higher price in this country prevailed for years until cheaper synthetic waxes displaced most of the demand for pure natural candelilla.

Up until the 1970’s, because of over-harvesting in Mexico, illegal wax factories operated in the Big Bend National Park and were the object of raids by park rangers who set out to enforce the illegal gathering of the plant in Texas.

On both sides of the river, the small mobile factories were targets for raiders and law enforcement alike. In 1914 Poncho Villa raided an American camp in Glenn Springs, prompting the US to send a 100,000 soldiers to the region.

Cererros gathered the wild desert plant and loaded their cargo on burros transporting it to candelilleros, the wax makers who boiled the stems usually at a remote cleft in the desert, skimming the wax from the top of the hot acid, cooling it and cutting it into squares for on transport to the dealers located in Presidio, Chihuahua and Alpine.

One of the few large scale candelilla factories operated in Presidio during WWII and produced 25 tons a day.

Candelilla wax consists mainly of hydrocarbons and is still used today when a high quality natural wax is needed. It has a melting point of 184 degrees. In Europe it is used as a glazing agent and food additive. Lipstick and chewing gum manufacturers worldwide pay top dollar for it, importing the product from Mexico, where gathering of the wild plant is still commercially feasible.

Aplomado Flacon

Under a blue sky a white dove glides, its wings fixed and round head arc, the legs stretched out and thin talons split the air as it approaches the branch of the yucca. Then a flash of lead-like color zooms in from above knocking the dove to the ground. A blur hovers then drops to the downed dove and clinches it between its claws rising now in the swirling wind where it joins its mate in the thin air of the Trans-Pecos.

The Aplomado Falcon has returned to west Texas after a long hiatus. 1952 was the last sighting of a mating pair up until the recent revival. Finally listed as an Endangered Species in 1986, few were seen until captured Aplomados from Chihuahua were released in south Texas in the 1990’s. Another substantial release of Aplomados occurred in west Texas on private lands in 2002. Today the Peregrine Fund has documented six mating pairs in the area, most of them in Jeff Davis County.

Aplomado is a Spanish word meaning lead color, but along with the bird’s blue-gray back are splashes of dark orange on its head and belly with yellow rimmed eyes.

Aplomados often hunt in pairs and their long tails make for agile rudders allowing for quick changes in direction. These hunters, who eat both insect and small vertebrae including smaller birds like the dove and the meadowlark need wide open grass land to survive.

Over-grazing and erosion to the land, a by-product of the cattle industry that dominated this part of the world over the past 100 years, changed and reduced the habitat of the aplomado forcing the bird south into the lesser developed region of Chihuahua,Mexico.

But today environmental factors are reversing as Chihuahua becomes more developed, through increased mono-culture farming practices in the Mexican desert and grasslands that deplete water reserves and eliminate habitat. An increased awareness in west Texas led by conservation minded ranchers and other land owners are restoring the great grasslands and providing another chance for wildlife like the Aplomado Falcon.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Trans-Pecos legends Ira and Ann Yates, namesakes of that famous conjuncted Texas town, Iraan, bought rough country along the Pecos River in 1915 and barely survived with their nine children until 1926 when black crude bubbled out of their ground. Instantly endowed, they focused on their first love, ranching, and their favorite breed, the Texas Longhorn.

Shipped over the Atlantic in the belly of Spanish Galleons, the longhorn was introduced to the Americas at the port of Vera Cruz, Mexico in about 1541. Gnarly and un-keen to be domesticated, many feraled and worked the low shrub and cactus country with their long legs and nearly hairless bellies north and west up to Texas. Multiplying profusely in a fenceless land, they used their horns to fend off predators like the big cats and grey wolves of that time. They became part of the territory, and their hides originally black from Spain, mutated, turning out brindles, speckles, reds and whites, that blended with the earth and rock. They became regular denizens in northern Mexico and were known as “Corrientes,” a Spanish word meaning “common.”

At the age of twelve, in post-civil war Texas, Ira Yates ran longhorns up the Goodnight-Loving trail to Dodge City where buyers bid cattle, primarily for tallow and hides, because meat and refrigeration had not yet co-mingled. Up to 1890, it’s estimated that 10,000,000 of the feral beasts were rounded up by free-lancing cowboys and driven north to the slaughterhouses.
New breeds gened into existence with higher grease content and larger hides. These hybrids such as Charolais, and Hereford displaced the pure scrawny Texas Longhorn, quickening its route to oblivion.

But Ira’s son, Cap, born in 1886, and buried in the Glass Mountains, was a crucial link in the family effort to preserve the Texas Longhorn. Finding few pure strains in the southwest, Cap traveled to Mexico and rounded up descendants of those first four-legged Spaniards that crossed the pond with the Conquistadores. Cap’s eventual 1500 strong longhorn herd became the seed stock for most of the Texas Longhorn living today.

Cap’s son, Fayette Yates, continued the family tradition, and became the first charter member of the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association. His horn collection can be seen today at the Old Lajitas Trading Post.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Marfa Lights

When aliens first visited Earth four billion years ago, they left two things to confound us: language and the Marfa Lights.

Explanations for the lights abound, from vehicle headlights to the genie in the iron dark of the world. The first written report was filed in the 1880’s by railroad workers about the time Marfa was coming into its own. The luminous spherical objects bouncing oddly across the horizon were seen from parts of the Chihuahua-San Antonio Trail just before Paisano Pass.

Strangely no reports of sightings were filed during the operation of the Marfa Airfield during the 1940’s when tens of thousands of military personnel were stationed here.

Scientists from around the country, Japan, and Germany have studied the phenomena. Nucleated dust has been one theory, an event that occurs when water in the atmosphere condensates with dust creating prismatic orbs in the sky.

Another theory, first discovered by Marie Curie’s husband Pierre, called the Piezoelectric effect, suggests that quartz in the surrounding mountains (the Chinatis and Paisano Plateau) build up electricity during thermal expansion of the rock and discharges the voltage on contraction. This pressure induced charge is especially active when great swings in ambient temperature occur. The luminous release is known as ball lightening. Unlike lightening flashes, these discharges can last for many seconds.

Another theory centers on the mirage principle where inter-stellar light is refracted through layers of cold and warm air in the earth’s atmosphere, essentially bending light. The dense cold air has a greater refractive index than the warm air and as the light passes through, it bends away from the temperature gradient, producing the mirage.

A recent study by the University of Texas at Dallas concluded after four nights in the field at the Marfa Lights Viewing Center on Highway 90, that they were nothing more than headlights from vehicles on Highway 67.

But written, video and photographic evidence of the lights might suggest otherwise. The unpredictable nature of these rare colored orbs bouncing yellow, blue and green along the horizon, suggesting a Sing-a-Long-with-Mitch rhythm, are different from the commonly seen white headlight spheres of the vehicles, the distant ranch lights, the flashing red of the railroad switch station and the Border Patrol checkpoint.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Alligator Gar

The molecules of air surged through the beast’s throat down a slippery tube and into the buoyancy bladder. Inside the membrane, blood vessels seine out the oxygen, maintaining a strategy that started perhaps 150 million years ago when this fish’s ancestors may have reptiled about the banks of a long ago sea. The mighty tail thrusts and propels it across the surface of the Rio Grande to lurk under a thicket of Giant Cane.

The largest Alligator Gar ever caught on a rod and reel came from the Texas side of the Rio Grande in 1951. At over seven feet long and 279 pounds, this marine leviathan ranks with the largest freshwater fish in the world.

The Alligator Gar has two rows of upper teeth and a powerful jaw both very much like the saltwater crocodile. A carnivore with a reptile-like ball and socket vertebrae and the ability not only take oxygen from the water with its gills but also to breathe out of water with a lung, this fish and its history have confounded scientists for years. Is it a fish trying to become a reptile, or a reptile that morphed into fishness?

Unusually well preserved fish fossils of the Green River, take the gar back over 100 million years ago, but new DNA research suggests this creature may have come from the Jurassic period or 150 MA. Either dating, the evidence suggests the fish has changed very little over the eons.

The diamond shaped interlocking scales that were once used by Native Americans for jewelry, breast plates and arrow tips, cover the fish in a tight armor and are part of the hydro-dynamics that make this fish a swift and great hunter.

The life span of an Alligator Gar runs 50-75 years but an increased mortality rate caused by pollution, dwindling habitat, and un-regulated fishing, is threatening the gar’s future. No longer found in the Upper Ohio Valley, many states have imposed bag limits. Texas and Louisiana still allow unlimited gar fishing, but in March, Texas Parks and Wildlife will host a public meeting to consider limiting commercial and sport fishers to one gar per day.

Dust Devils

A whooshing suck roared out of the earth as if some ginny had been released from the metallic fiber of the inner world. The spiral of dust and air danced across the field inhaling rocks, sticks, seeds and centipedes, a commotion unto itself on an otherwise hot and calm day.

Dust Devils, also known as Remolinos, in west Texas, are brief whirl winds that form when hot air from the earth’s surface rise unevenly, like bubbles in a Topo Chico. Cooler air rushes in to the column of hot air to fill the voids and the reciprocating air of unlike densities begins to spin. Slowly at first until, like the arms and legs of an ice skater tucked in tight for the encore, the atmospheric vortex of the dust devil becomes fully formed spinning at speeds of up to 70 mph and demonstrating the science principle of conservation of angular momentum.

As the vortex bops across the surface, more hot air is sucked in along with dust and debris, lowering the air pressure inside and causing the dust devil to rise. These augers of sand and dust can change colors depending on the landscape they run over and can even be transparent if formed over a clean grassy area.

Like tornados, they are weather phenomena, but most dust devils form under sunny conditions during fair weather and are seldom dangerous with few lasting longer than a minute. They generally form in arid and semi-arid regions and a flat barren terrain increases the likelihood of the hot air fuel. Diameters of three feet are common but some grow as large as 300 feet across the base, lasting thirty minutes and can lift more than 15 tons of dust and debris into the air. The whirling particles inside the vortex become electrically charged and create a magnetic field that helps lift more dust off the ground.

The Viking orbiters of the 1970’s, photographed Dust Devils on the planet Mars climbing out of craters, creating columns of Martian dust ten times higher than those found on earth.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


“Three bucks on the scorpion,” a bearded hombre waved his cash in the crowd as the greasy flow of the Rio Grande slapped at the pebbled banks of the island on which they stood.

“Got a buck here,” The dealer grabbed the bill from the bettor’s hand and moved to the next.

An iron tub had been dragged into this no man’s land somewhere between Texas and Mexico. As the sun dipped below the mountains the hawker announced the fight was about to begin: Two arachnoids faced each other at the bottom of the white tub, a tarantula and a vinegarone.

The vinegarone often referred to as a whip scorpion, is no scorpion at all, but an arachnoid, part of the spider family. With four pairs of legs, the vinegarone is nocturnal, and scoots across the desert surface at night in search of fresh meat, like crickets or millipedes. Like the scorpion, they have a pair of eyes in front and three on each side of the head, but have poor vision. To pick their way through the desert, they rely on their first set of legs. Modified over the eons, these legs act as antennae-like sensory organs, that feel the ground as they walk with the other six.

Many vinegarones grow as long as six inches, including the thin whip like tail, which is shaped much like the scorpion’s but without the poisonous barb. Vinegarones subdue their prey with a set of powerful pinchers.

The vinegarone when cornered is capable of spraying a mist of acetic and octanoic acid, a foul combination that smells like vinegar or vinagron in Tex-Mex and hence the name vinegarone.

In the scientific community vinegarones are known as Uropygids, meaning tail rump in Greek. Many varieities flourish throughout the world. The black sometimes orange Texas vinegarone is found primarily in the Chihuahuan Desert but has been found as far north as the Texas Panhandle.

Vinegarone was also the name of a railroad camp near the confluence of the Pecos and Rio Grande. At its peak in 1883, 3500 people lived there. Judge Roy Bean, who was also known as a vinegarone, operated a saloon there and occasionally hosted paramutual events on the un-lawed islands of the Rio Grande.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Creosote Bush

With leathery hands, the shaman laid the creosote twigs across the corpse then positioned the male cadaver in the prone position, facing north in the shallow grave. Pottery jars of seeds and dried venison for the afterlife were sealed by creosote lac and tucked up next to the dark dead skin of the La Junta warrior.

The creosote plant covers over 120 million acres of land in Mexico and the southwestern USA. Native people of this region have used the plant medicinally from birth to death for centuries in the form of tea, smoked leaves or chewed raw. Perhaps as common as penicillin today, the creosote bush or greasewood, remedied pain at childbirth, rheumatism, menstrual cramps, coughing, poisonous bites and sore throats. Today the plant is used to combat fatigue in patients undergoing chemo-therapy. And, although the Food and Drug Administration considers it unfit for human consumption, it is used to stabilize Vitamin A and has also been administered for the treatment of lyme disease and the melting of kidney stones. Studies have shown its properties to be anti-septic, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory.

Scientists believe that a creosote plant seed was deposited in North America from South America by birds during the last ice age some 10,000 years ago. It crept into the Chihuahua Desert 4500 years ago and because of its unique concentric stem growth, some plants live to be a thousand years old. A descendant of one of these early bird droppings lives in Johnson Valley, California. At 9400 years old it is thought to be the oldest living organism in the world.

Like pine, greasewood is a bodega of resin, an amber syrup rich in flavinoids, oils and waxes which can make up to 20 percent of the weight of the bush. These resins shield the leaf from the strong UV light and heat of the desert allowing photosynthesis to go uninterrupted inside the leaf. Three hundred and sixty chemicals have been isolated in the oils of the creosote bush including forty-nine types of volatile oils.

Defense mechanisms include foul tasting oils that repel herbivores like deer, javalina and cattle. Some creosote leaf proteins are indigestible. But one grasshopper, the Astroma, has found a way to undo the creosote’s chemical defense and not only eats the leaves but lives within the plant’s canopy. The female resembles old stems and hide in the shade of the creosote while the male looks like the young leaf sprays. Another insect, the Tachardiella Larreae, lives on the creosote plant and secretes a gum-like substance called lac that was also used medicinally by Native Americans.

The chemicals in creosote roots also inhibit the growth of other plants, keeping them at distance and creating the image of a symmetrical mono-culture in many areas of the plant’s range.
After many days of drought, a fresh rain in the Trans-Pecos brings out the smells of vinyl, camphor, methyl ketones from the clean washed leaves of the creosote plant that many still call hediondilla or “little stinker.”

Friday, January 30, 2009

Rio Grande Blue Catfish

Gliding through the greasy waters of the Rio Grande above the mud bottom on the deep outside reach of a bend, where the current ripples the surface on a moonless night, a giant blue catfish moves in on its prey.

Native to much of North America and existing as far south as Guatemala, the Blue Cat prefers large river systems like the Rio Grande. And unlike most of the other 40 fish species found in the Texas reach of this river, the blue cat is far from minnow size. The state record for a blue cat is 121 lbs caught on a rod and reel in 2004.

Like its predatory colleague, the gar fish, the blue cat along with its cousins the channel and the flathead have survived drought, pollution and artificial impoundments in the river that divert flow. The American Eel and the Atlantic Sturgeon that once roamed the nation’s fourth largest river system are no longer here.

The Rio Grande version of the blue cat is unique in that its slate blue body with the forked tail and multi-rayed anal fin is covered with dark spots found nowhere else. Some scientists speculate the spots are a camouflage mechanism that evolved for better survival.

For the most part, the blue cats eat other fish, like the Rio Grande Perch, or minnows, as well as frogs, mussels and insects and they will not hesitate to suck down the melting flesh of anything dead. Barbels, the cat-like whiskers near the mouth are chemo-sensory organs that allow the catfish to taste its environment.

Because Catfish have no scales, they are sun sensitive and can easily sun burn, preferring dark and deep water. Their smooth skin makes them efficient swimmers but they lack the body armor of a scaled fish.

Over 100 species of catfish swim the inland and coastal waters of every continent in the world except Antarctica and half of those species are found in America.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Pena Blanca Springs Meteorite

On an August day in 1946, at the Gage Ranch, a few miles southeast of Marathon, ranch hands and children shook themselves off as they splashed out of the swimming hole brimming from the waters of the Pena Blanca Spring. The cook at the nearby Catto House sat in a chair on the porch. Sweat trickled down her forehead as she washed beans in a pot. A cabrito smoked in a pit and in the distance an old Ford truck with cowboys dusted up a caliche road.

A boom in the sky followed by a noise that sounded like a car running on a flat tire interrupted the otherwise clear day. A herd of horses nearby began to snort and hoove in the dirt. The old Ford had already parked at the tank and the cowboys were looking up. A second later they were dripping wet.

“It looked,” the cook said. “like a black bag falling out of the sky, with white dust coming out of it.”

When asked about the incident four days later by meteorite collector O.E. Monnig of Ft. Worth, Mrs. Catto, slammed her fist against her palm to illustrate the impact of the meteorite hitting the water. “I feel mighty lucky,” she said.

Meteorites fall everyday onto the earth, but few are found, fewer seen in descent and only a handful have ever been heard. They flash in the sky as they enter and burn in the earth’s atmosphere and are termed meteorites when they make it to the earth’s surface. Meteors, however, vaporize in the atmosphere and never land. The cosmic velocity of a 1000 pound meteorite can reach 24 miles a second in space but once in our atmosphere, gravity and friction can slow it down to as little as 250 miles per hour. The sound the swimmers heard was a sonic boom and the flat tire effect came from the scalloped profile of the rock sizzling through the air.

Scientists dated the Pena Blanca Springs Meteorite at 4.5 billion years old or about the same age as the earth, coinciding with the formative epoch of our solar system. Meteorites generally consist of fragments from asteroids that hover mostly in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter though sometimes meteorites contain parts of other planets or moons. Imprisoned by the gravity of our solar system, these rocks wander in space, some beyond Pluto until they collide with planetary atmospheres such as ours.

The estimated weight of the Pena Blanca Springs Meteorite was about 200 lbs before it shattered against a bed of novaculite rock running under the tank. It contained organic compounds including carbon, oxygen and hydrogen and gave off a slight sulphur dioxide odor. It also contained amino acids, the proteins necessary for constructing life.

The chances of being hit by a meteorite are rare. Some scientists calculate that if you lived on 400 acres of land, you’d have to wait a hundred thousand years to chance see a meteorite hit your domain. That’s the odds. And the formation of life, proteins compounding to kick start life out of stardust are astronomically improbably – but still possible.