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A Texas Naturalist on 'Pride of Place'


From Baltimore, we journey to the Southwest.

Mr. DAVID TAYLOR (Editor, Pride of Place): (Reading) On the Chihuahuan Desert grass is short, bunched and dust colored. Passers through sometimes can't see it. Visibility improves at sundown when the late evening light bathes the land in fuzzy gold. Except for the grass, this desert is like all deserts: hot, dry and mute. Here, green is not garish like 50s neon, but grayed, faded and brittle. Desert colors are not aggressive. They don't compete. Don't shout. They steal your heart with a whisper.

The ground is rocky, rainfall sporadic. Water source is tiny. The grass deserts' three greatest assets. If any one of these factors were changed, this country will fill with something else: farms, industry, cities, golf courses. Wide 50-mile flats are broken by mountains, but not mountain ranges; even mountains in this country prefer to live scattered.

ELLIOTT: That's David Taylor reading an essay by cowgirl Barbara Barney Nelson. Mr. Taylor is the editor of a new book, Pride of Place: A Contemporary Anthology of Texas Nature Writing. He had a broad vision for the collection.

Mr. TAYLOR: I wanted to have essays that represented most of the major bio-regions of Texas. But what I also wanted to do was to tie in a sense of the wilderness; a sense of the urban; a sense of ranching; a sense of prairie chicken preservation, to -- even a essay looking for a really great Mexican restaurant in El Paso.

ELLIOTT: The one that you wrote, Paddling the Urban Sprawl of North Texas, is set in suburban Dallas. Your story takes place on Elm Fork, a branch of Trinity River. Tell us about Elm Fork.

Mr. TAYLOR: Sure. The Trinity River is so named because it has three branches north of Dallas and Fort Worth: the East Fork, the Elm Fork and the West Fork. The Elm Fork kind of meanders its way right in between. And I grew up right up on the Elm Fork. It's an interesting river because, like a lot of Texas rivers in this area, it has not been necessarily well preserved. And in fact, during the summer, about 98 to 99 percent of the water that is flowing through the Elm Fork is because of wastewater treatment plants and reservoirs.

So the river then is mix sometimes of things that can seem quite beautiful and yet probably isn't in anything what we would think of as a pristine state.

ELLIOTT: In your essay, you're in a canoe on the Elm Fork with one of your childhood friends, Scott, and you've returned home for the holidays. It's January 1997, and what seems to be going through your mind is the recent death of country music singer Townes Van Zandt, a Texas native, and as you're paddling along, his music becomes sort of soundtrack in your head. I want to listen to a little bit of what you were playing in your head. This is Catfish Song.

(Soundbite of song Catfish Song)

Mr. TOWNES VAN ZANDT (Musician): (Singing) Well, down at the bottom of that dirty old river, down where the reeds and the catfish play, there lies a dream as soft as the water. There lies a bluebird that's flown away. Oh, there lies a bluebird that's flown away.

ELLIOTT: I'd like to know what you see as the connection between his music and the suburban nature that you write about.

Mr. TAYLOR: People tend to talk about his music as being awe-inspiring, that literally, even Townes described it sometimes that when he was writing his music, he could just feel lightning bolts coming out of his fingers. But what's interesting is that when you listen to the songs, Townes wasn't the most elaborate musician in the sense that most of his songs are three-four chords. They're pretty straightforward stuff.

And we have to sometimes, I think, feel the need to make something awe-inspiring and grand and marvelous when things maybe are just simple, whether it be Townes' songs or North Texas landscape, which is a muddy old river, a few sycamore, a few oaks, and that's pretty much it. Can we find something beautiful there and not have to try to make it something more?

ELLIOTT: There's this point in your essay where you and your friend Scott are in your canoe and you actually see an eagle, and you resist the urge to make something big of that even though this is the first time you've seen a bald eagle in Texas.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah. Since then, actually, now there are quite a few nesting pairs up on a lake on the Elm Fork, but at that time, it was pretty rare, and I think that what happened there is a connection with this place in a way that I think is a more subtle relationship, not one based upon needing to find an eagle to find something worth caring about but maybe settling in to saying, Oh, okay, what's simple here is what's beautiful.

ELLIOTT: David Taylor teaches English and philosophy at the University of North Texas. He's the editor of Pride of Place: A Contemporary Anthology of Texas Nature Writing. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. TAYLOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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