Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Art and Agitation of Landscapes

west texas ag
Agricultural kaleidoscope

Before I was exiled from Eden moved to Texas, I had the same conception of it shared by most northerners…a vast expanse of desert populated by longhorns, grizzled cowfolk, and oil derricks[i]. And while there’s a Gibraltar-sized kernel of truth in that assessment, the actual geography of Texas is fairly varied.

plains bottomlands central mountain pineywoods castal
The vastly flat plains of northern Texas, the verdant river bottomlands, the hardscrabble scrublands of the Hill Country, The sort-of mountains of West Texas, the dense forests and lakes of the East Texas Pineywoods, and the immense and scarred coastal wetlands[ii].  The land types of Texas are as varied as the ways in which we’ve gone about mucking them up.

While it’s impressive in its, well, bigness, what’s equally impressive is the extent to which we’ve modified massive bits of it; creating green swathes in the desert, altering the course of rivers, and building sprawling cities that can be seen from space. The human geography of Texas is as much a part of the landscape as the processes of time, water and wind.

For example, Houston, which is easily visible from space. It’s the outlined massive grey blob against the surrounding green.600+ square miles of sprawling impervious cover; larger than many prominent “natural” features of the landscape (impact craters, etc.)

I’ve always loved maps. Mostly because they fundamentally change the way our brains think of our environs. Ever since I was a kid there was something about looking at places on maps that fired up the imagination. The advent of aerial and satellite imagery adds an even deeper dimension to that experience.  I work a lot with maps in my job, so I get used to seeing things from the 20,000 foot view. Every once in a while, I see something in an aerial/satellite image that just amazes me. But I think I’ve come to also appreciate that our familiar landscapes, even those most mundane and unexciting from the ground, can turn into unintentional art when viewed from above. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the consideration of the scale of our impact on the land. 

The Leucke woods are one of my favorite Texas landscapes, especially since there are so many contrasting legends as to the reason they exist. Look carefully at the lower edge of the photo…you’ll see the city of Smithville. This should give you an idea of the size of this man-made alteration. Some stories claim the rancher did it as part of a property dispute, some say he just felt like it. However, it is apparently the largest of its kind, at 3100 feet long and 1700 feet wide. It’s so large, astronauts have used it to calibrate camera technology from space. You can see a flyover of it here. This is just pure, unadulterated Texas, writ large (literally.)

Rice Farming was a predominant activity of a large portion of southeastern Texas until the bottom went out of the market and water got scarce. Rice fields have internal baffles and contours that appear as mounded lines from the ground, but take on an artificial but beautiful pattern from above. The irony is that they look like topo maps, though they are often in areas with little or no actual topographical change.

Tawakoni water
travis water
Water Dragons - According to Texas lore, Caddo Lake on its eastern border is the only natural, non-horseshoe, lake in Texas. While this is arguably inaccurate, what is true is that the majority of lakes in Texas are the result of damming projects on rivers. The vast lakes of eastern Texas[iii] are almost all reservoirs. The scale of this alteration of the land is hard to even comprehend for the left side of my brain. Luckily, the right side of my brain thinks that the characteristic reservoir shape (long, linear, jagged edges mirroring the drainage basins of the surrounding land) look like some sort of land-bound dragons roaming across the landscape[iv].

The Bolivar Peninsula extends eastward from the entrance of Galveston Bay. At its western tip, a massive jetty thrusts out into the Gulf to protect the narrow entrance to Galveston Bay from sediment carried by the currents moving down to the southwest. The jetty is an amazing 5 miles long and has drastically altered the transport of sediment along the Gulf[v]. North of the jetty, the sediment buildup has created vast mudflats, beaches and marshes, yielding an immensely productive Audubon shorebird sanctuary.

West texas
west texas ag in
Agriculture has long been the backbone of Texas, and there is no landscape that has remained untamed, save the most mountainous extremes. Regions of agricultural fields form a mosaic patchwork on the land, and stand out in stark contrast along the Rio Grande River and in the arid regions of west Texas r[vi]. The ability to carve out green swathes in dry and dusty land speaks as much to perseverance and Texas’ history as it does to the coming firestorm of water scarcity. Yet again, my right brain takes a break from such weighty left brain considerations to see the sad beauty of these contrasts when viewed from above.  

west texas oilfields
west texas oilfields
2 west texas oilfields
Oil and Texas are inextricably bound in reality as well as popular image. The pictures above show, in deceasing altitude, the vast expanse of oil/gas fields in Texas. When I first flew over west Texas, I thought it curious that so many seeming suburban developments had this odd circuit board appearance. It wasn’t until later that I learned that what I assumed to be remote developments were just the uniform, sprawling well fields. Vast plains of derricks, moving in unison to some unending primordial rhythm.

On the other end of things are the lunar landscapes of the refinery industry of the coast. As much as the scale of the land devoted a single, unyielding purpose staggers the mind, the view from above is fascinating. It’s like someone modeled the surface of the Death Star in unimaginably large Legos.

 It’s landscapes like that that make me take some comfort that the environs of my less-than-beloved place in this vast state remain a little greener than most[vii].

The sprawl-oases of Barker and Addicks Reservoirs, and the linear Terry Hershey Park. House marked with yellow star. 

[i] Admittedly, a good chunk of Texas is exactly this.
[ii] The small “wave” like features in the open water are some sort of man-made baffles or breakwaters. This is a great example of the scope and extent that we have altered the coastal wetlands, mostly for oil production. What’s interesting is how much has been altered, and how few people know what these structures once were. Where I hike on the coast, there are a myriad of these remnants, seemingly without purpose or explanation, like artifacts of another civilization or alien graffiti. The Texas coast, for all its growth and buzz is a place swarming with the ghosts of its past, carved indelibly on the land.
[iii] Again, most of which are visible from space
[iv] From top, Lakes Tawakoni and Travis
[v] Though admittedly, this is balanced in some part by the fact that much more sediment flow out of our rivers than is natural. Some river mouths have actually been closed by sediment from upcurrent rivers, forcing water into the inter-coastal waterway than runs parallel to the shore (itself a massive engineering project, running the entire length of the Texas coast.
[vi] Second and third photos, respectively
[vii] That’s of course when stupid left brain breaks in with concerns about location and equity of the economics of where people live. 

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