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Original Issue


This year, on the 11th day of spring, I went back to the Middle Bosque canyon and walked down it for the first time in 43 years. I wanted to see how much it had changed. The canyon lies in the quietest corner of central Texas's McLennan County, with bare, fenced farmland rolling for miles on either side. As a canyon it isn't much—half a mile wide, about 150 feet deep, its river, the modest Middle Bosque, wandering from side to side between limestone bluffs. But the 10-mile stretch of it that I used to know was a reservoir of plants and animals that you certainly couldn't find in the wheat fields and pastures above.

No one lives in the canyon. Various farmers own it, but they dwell above it, on the prairie, safe from floods. Most of them are the descendents of the men who owned these fields before World War II; they're so solidly settled on their land that they've never sold out to the big money from Dallas or Houston, which would have brought in bulldozers and changed everything. I did find changes along the river. But they were few—and maybe even for the better.

Lonnie Allen, 28, a native of Cheraw, Colo. who now lives in Texas, walked down the canyon with me. We left his Jeep at one end of the stretch of the river, drove my car to a farmhouse at the other end and started walking. It was a damp morning. The grayness in the air seemed neither fog nor mist, just drab air that obscured the sun.

In the last little pasture before we started down to the canyon floor, four whitetail does watched us. Heads up, motionless, they were so alike that they might have been quadruplets, which are not impossible with deer. They ran away into some woods, leaping in high arcs and in perfect unison. Four porpoises couldn't have done it better.

At our starting point a gravel road lowers itself into the canyon and immediately climbs out again, after crossing the Bosque on a one-lane-wide block of concrete that's almost as much dam as bridge. A single round hole lets the river through. We stood on this bridge and looked downstream. The river was low and sluggish and clear, with alternating pools and rapids among white gravel bars. The woodland floor was 20 feet higher on either side. In the trees to our right a Jeep track wound away downstream. We followed it. You find such stretches of crude dirt road in the canyon, used by hunters and people chain-sawing wood.

The spring leaves were out in a dozen shades of green. Patches of wild flowers, pink and lemon yellow and blue, were scattered in the glades. Cardinals were calling birdy-birdy-birdy, as if following instructions from A Field Guide to the Birds of Texas. Sometimes they showed themselves, bright red among the small green leaves.

Boulders have come loose and rolled down from the canyon rim and now lie among the trees. We came to one roughly the size and shape of a Sherman tank. I recognized it. Beside it, in 1940, my father and I found a pile of 37 squirrel tails. In the Depression years men fed their families any way they could. The canyon has assorted oaks and native pecan trees that grow as high as 100 feet tall. But today we saw no squirrels in them, and only one nest. At the moment raccoons are numerous in these woods, and the squirrel population has declined. "That suits me all right," a young trapper told me. "Coonskins are worth $30 apiece."

There are three Bosque rivers—North, Middle and South. They are graded in size from the smallest in the south, and they all flow together into an area now covered by drab, artificial Lake Waco. Bosque means woods in Spanish. The Spaniards, who passed through this area centuries ago, named all the major rivers of Texas and many lesser ones: Colorado, Brazos, Pecos. American settlers who arrived in the 19th century did a fairly pedestrian job on what was left: Hog Creek, Harris Creek, Elm Creek, etc.

We crossed a 40-acre pasture in the canyon, flat and smooth and as green as Ireland. Heavy machinery had cleared out the woods, leaving only scattered pecan trees to provide shade for livestock. Several farmers have opened such areas. Some of the pastures, where tall and elegant cedar elms have been left uncut, are as handsome as a private park in England. Their backdrop is limestone bluffs—the canyon walls.

Lonnie, who likes hunting deer and elk, signaled me to stop. We heard a light crashing in some brush up ahead, and then two deer crossed ahead of us and moved out of sight and hearing. We'd already seen a number of deer blinds and should have kept count throughout the day. Were there 15, or 25? Some were crude, made from old doors and other junk. A fancy one we looked into had shag carpeting, a cushioned chair, a shelf for thermos jugs and other comforts. Thirty yards in front of it an automatic deer feeder hung in a tree. In season, a timing device releases pellets or grain to bring the animals within easy range.

Forty years ago, no deer lived in the canyon. Now there may be too many. "Last fall, I got out of my pickup at four o'clock and killed my deer at four-fifteen," one farmer's son told me. On the north rim of the Bosque, a landowner keeps a 1963 Dodge in the middle of one of his pastures, wheelless, propped on rocks. It's his deer blind. Each fall he sits comfortably on the cushions and shoots a buck out the window. Not for sport; it's a practical chore, like killing a hog.

Around 11 the sun burned off most of the grayness and began to cast shadows. This brought out butterflies—white, yellow and salmon pink. Vultures soared overhead, their long black shadows sweeping back and forth around us on the ground. Vultures are as silent as their shadows. Crows, on the other hand, make most of the woodland's noise.

When I was 17 I shot a bat in the canyon, in daylight, with a 20-gauge shotgun. It tumbled obligingly out of the air and lay on its back in the grass. Its eyes were not on each side, like a bird's, but in front, like a man's. I had not expected a facial expression in a bat. It looked up at me with hatred and great pain. There was so much fierce cognizance in its eyes that I felt it knew my name. Moved by its suffering, I gave up killing animals.

The modern world lies just beyond the rim of the canyon. The kerosene lamps, woodburning stoves and iron wash pots of the 1930s are gone. In their comfortable houses the farmers have everything except cable TV. Some of their tight-stretched modern fences run into the canyon, marking property lines—a change from the rotted cedar posts and rusty barbed wire of 1940.

Lonnie and I climbed up to a rock shelter—a place where a bluff overhangs enough to keep out sun and rain—just under the rim and ate lunch. Indians camped or lived in the better shelters. This one was small, perhaps 60 feet long and 15 feet deep in the middle. There was no sign that it had ever been dug for arrowheads or pots. Until we blackened a couple of rocks with our little fire, there was no sign that anyone had been in the shelter in the 20th century.

I've camped a few nights in the canyon. The darkness is full of hoots and shrieks and splashes in the river. But the sound that keeps you edgy is made by armadillos, rooting in brush and leaves just a few yards from your tent. It's a loud sound, and so close and careless you think no animal smaller than a bear would dare to make it. Actually, the armadillo, whose hearing and eyesight are poor, doesn't know you're there. It's just scratching for beetles and worms and eating them. No camper in northern woods will ever hear this noise. Armadillos, being covered with thin shell instead of fur, are too poorly insulated to make it through a frozen winter. They are immigrants from South America and have already got as far north in this country as the climate will let them go.

As Lonnie and I hiked, I kept looking for a great blue heron. They're the presiding spirits, and perhaps the real owners, of quiet American streams. You can rarely get close to one. They stand in the shallows, almost always alone, and fly away from you with ponderously beating six-foot wings. Once on a long walk down the Bosque I flushed the same heron three times. Twice it lifted silently into the air and went flapping off around a bend, to settle at another pool and resume its fishing. The third time it gave a series of loud, resentful honks and lifted out of the canyon to seek another stream. I had no doubt that its complaints were addressed to me.

The Bosque's best swimming holes aren't in the gravel-choked main river, but in the little creeks that feed it. They run in channels of smooth limestone. As a teenager I used to walk three miles from my grandparents' farmhouse to my favorite—a deep, narrow pool with streaks and strands of cold water rising from springs in the bottom. It was sensory heaven on a hot day.

Then, I didn't know or care who owned the land. Now, in a time of vandalism and motorized cattle rustling, you make inquiries and get permission to wander around. When I went back to the pool recently, it hadn't changed. The water was a milky green, the woods came almost to the edge of the stream and a woodpecker was at work nearby. A hundred yards upstream, cliff swallows had built about 200 mud nests on a stretch of overhanging bluff. Some of the birds swirled overhead. Others—fledglings, perhaps—peered out through the single hole that in each nest serves as entrance, exit and window. Older Texans have a nice name for them: mud martins. You often find small colonies stuck under highway bridges and on the downstream side of high concrete dams. Those near my old swimming hole, on a quiet creek in quiet woods, are living in much better style.

Our destination was the next bridge, 10 miles downstream from where we'd started. The afternoon grew long. We saw a dead fox and then a live cottontail. We smelled a skunk—an old, faded smell. The brush in the woods became thicker, with extra lashings of greenbriar and poison ivy. There were no Jeep tracks. The going was too thick, too scratchy. We took to the stream, wading along the edges of the deep holes, not getting our jeans wet much above the knees.

"Snake," said Lonnie. It was about four feet long, black, possibly a water moccasin. It slid off some exposed roots into the pool we were wading in. But not to attack. It went to the bottom in the deepest part and coiled there. It wanted to hide, but it was plainly visible. Later I learned from a Golden Nature Guide that this is typical behavior of a harmless, black water snake. It would have been interesting to see how long it could stay submerged. But we were dry-mouthed and eager to move on. We had forgotten one canteen at home and had gone waterless all afternoon.

The highway bridge where we'd left Lonnie's Jeep appeared. Every few minutes a car streaked across it, its tires thumping on the expansion joints. After the quiet day, the speed of automobiles seemed unnatural and a little crazy. Nowhere in the 10 miles of canyon had we seen another person.

Twenty-five miles to the east, the city of Waco grows and annexes chunks of McLennan County: 52,800 city dwellers in 1930, 101.261 in 1980. Interstate 35 roars through town six lanes wide. Many of Waco's residents don't know or care about the quiet canyon in the far corner of the county, where little has changed since World War II.

In a way, the canyon defends itself. Clearing its woods and brambles is expensive. Fences and deer blinds are about all that can be built there. Floods are inevitable. One could dam the river and make a long, narrow lake, with beer cans on the bottom and water skiers on top. But Texas is perhaps oversupplied with such "impoundments," as these artificial lakes are called. The Middle Bosque seems safe for a while. Ducks can continue to feed in its pools in winter, warblers can rest in its treetops in spring.

Between us and the bridge, the great blue heron I'd been looking for all day rose from some shallows without a sound. Slowly, patiently beating its enormous wings, it flew under the bridge and on down the Middle Bosque, to a pool where we wouldn't disturb it. We climbed out of the canyon, walked a final mile along Highway 317 to Crawford and bought ourselves a soft drink from a machine.