Jan 16. It often smells bad when I am driving around. You can’t edit out the yellow grass, or the black mesquite (and its distribution now away from the draws, so that it dots most of the landscape), or the skies, or the oil pads, or the tanks, or the smells, or the invasive plants. I have edited out what I have not experienced: the radically different summer scape, replete with rattlesnakes and scorpions. And golf-ball hail season. And howling 60 MPH winds. And tornadoes. And wildflowers that bloom after rains (though there’s been a 100 day drought, burn ban, and some worry). But back to the smell: If every 1/4 mile you see a sign posted on a private gate stating Warning: Poison Gas, it can’t be A-Okay. I have heard from several people that you stop smelling it. Children brought up here don’t smell it at all. Small towns have big cancer causalities. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Most people here are fully embedded in the landscape, and if you want a job and any sense of community, you’re not outspoken or asking too many questions.
I got to see the Wink Sink #2.
I discovered this black spot while looking around the area on Google Maps’ satellite view; you can see the town of Wink at the bottom left, and a large and small black spot at the top right. The small hole opened in 2002 and is stabilized. The large hole is Wink Sink #2:
It started as a foot wide hole in 2006, and is still outgrowing its training fences.
It is disturbance geology in hyper fast forward. It has grandeur and looks delicious.
Electric lines and pipelines have been moved, and a county road is closed.
The cracks and faults that are appearing in proximity to the sinkhole are spooky, radiating out onto larger roads and the neighboring land.
This landscape below was en route between Odessa and Kermit. I love the contrast of the yellow yellow grass of the Llano to the hidden sink hole with its deep, blue, blue water. I love the sfumato that much of this soft landscape offers.
I stopped by Monahans Sand Hills State Park one last time. It really is my favorite retreat here; it’s a pocket dune desert, it’s empty this time of year, and it’s got magical properties. The trees near the Park HQ were full of Pyrrhuloxia (why does this bird lack a vernacular name?), who are apparently bullies to other birds:
There were strange tracks in the sand. Ranger said probably owl:
And siskins in the yucca:
OK, I have to go home and figure out what I am doing.
I left an extra day and a half, so I would know if I was done for now.
I’m done, and started to feel like I was driving aimlessly yesterday late afternoon.
I’ll be back, I am sure of it. I just need to figure out the next stage of work.
Meanwhile, I finished up the trip at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum. Glad I waited. The exhibits filled in some holes, but didn’t frame my trek:
The Hall of Fame:
Caution! You are stepping back 230,000,000 YEARS:
A Permian Reef:
And captured some of the signs in Midland:
The penultimate mirage will be the cowboy:
And the 19th century Comanche raiding party gets the final word…
I wish I were in such blighted yet open places. The deserts are the ruins before time.
Jan 15. Drove another big circle: Midland, Stiles, Big Lake, Iraan, McCamey, Crane, Odessa.
Big Lake was scary. The gas station filled with roustabouts getting lunch, felt like packs of wolves. One man licked his chops at me. That was a first. Seriously. the whole town felt… blown out. It was weird, as I have felt relatively safe (just a wee paranoid after the close call with the FBI in Texas City).
… all for two moments, really, but well worth it.
After sitting in on Day 1 of the Sibley Center’s Master Naturalist Course, a nature/culture overview of the Llano Estacado, I headed out on this insane 230 mile loop in the drizzle. Saw several interesting things, but was feeling kind of low by the lack of that bell-going-off. Then things changed after passing through Iraan, boom-town residence of Alley Oop comic strip artist V.T. Hamlin. You have to wonder if Hamlin’s interest in dinosaurs and cavemen was inferred from working the petroleum. A closed museum and a droopy little “Alley Oop Fantasy Park” ( not even worth a photo).
The Iraan Restland Cemetery:
Crane County drill rig, belching, at Golden hour:
Other selects of some interest.
Also in the ghost town of Stiles, all that’s left is its beautiful destroyed courthouse – the perfect setting for a Tarkovsky Western:
Highway cuts and erosion near between Big Lake and Iraan:
And suggestions of water issues:
I have seen an awful lot of roadkill on this trip, it’s been painful: dogs and cats and skunks and deer and raccoon, mostly. So I was very happy to see a live skunk along the road, and encouraged him to get the fuck off the highway:
Speed limits are 80 mph most places. Lots more gas. People leave their trucks running in the parking lots of stores. Gasoline is not cheap either. But it’s important to spend it.
Jan 14. Met with an independent oil man for coffee. He was so kind and so generous with his time I wish we had focused more on HOW he sees as a geologist. How he gets a mental picture-map of rocks that delineate both time and space. And how he gambles as an oil man. But I think I perturbed him. I can’t agree that today we have foolproof methodology (cmon now) simply because we have better science and more regulation than in the recent past (emphasis on recent), although vilification of either the oil industry or the environmentalists is sheer idiocy. But it is an industry, and a far more lucrative one than the alternatives currently.
We are the Petroleum Age, and nearly everything we do, wear, move through and with, touch, and ingest is directly influenced or made from petroleum. Rock Oil.
Got a 3 hour Burr Williams Grand Tour of a (relatively small) piece of land south and east of the Fairgrounds Road in Midland. I’d asked to see some spots he liked a lot / found of interest in Midland. First we went in search of the Sandhill Cranes who winter in Texas (half a million of them. They appear in the fossil record 9,000,000 years ago in Nebraska). We hit the salina (a salt water pond endemic to the Llano, that is sometimes wet), where the cranes like to spend their nights, protected from predators. I am guessing these ephemeral ponds should not be confused with the saline dead zones where watery effluent from oil well drilling was left, as those also dry up and look like salinas. We didn’t see any cranes, there, but later saw them wheeling in the sky. They glide, and the gloss off their wings creates an intermittent cloak of invisibility. Then we drove down a gravel road, past a fence limned with dead coyotes and raccoon – vivid. Shoot them coyotes. Of course it doesn’t help, since coyotes regulate their populations: if the adult population goes down, they have more babies. And in times of abundance, they bear less young. Burr told me about Bud Williams, a Stockmanship teacher (who’s often compared to Temple Grandin) who teaches body language and sensitivity in order to more effectively and humanely work with livestock – and above all, to like your animals. He apparently can help reduce the necessity to shoot coyotes: if the herd learns to remain tight knit, coyotes don’t nab individuals. Then we stopped amidst a small copse of bare soapberry trees. Come, say, October 10, these trees will be full of monarch butterflies as they migrate through here. Burr says calling places “flyways” is outdated. Think of it more as a sheetwash. What? The way water runs over the land, here in Texas. A blur, not a path. I see the point of this: Treat it like a trail, you can do what you want everywhere else. Treat it like an ambient phenomena, and you have to deal more holistically. Then we visited a pocket forest of soapberry. Coyote skeleton, curled up like sleeping, rotted where it was shot. These tiny forests host deer, and grey foxes who climb, and a litany of birds. We also saw what Burr said was the largest oak forest in the world, a forest of shin-high oaks (called Shin Oak) with extraordinarily large acorns that not only are tasty, but whose tannin makeup is such they only have to be washed once. It’s thought that Native Americans came to harvest them and take them away… No one lived on the Llano; it was a commons, a place to trade, move through, hunt buffalo, as you can see on this map detail from the late 1800’s it’s an elevated table land without wood or water. We also passed a prairie dog town, albeit a small one, field-sized. Estimates were over a billion in the 19th century. Giant earthworms Burr said. Horsemen don’t like them but they are amazing aerators. We finished up near the waste treatment facility. Too alkaline for much, but very pretty (see panorama below).
Creosote smells like asphalt.
Mountain laurel is an entheogen.
Escaped ornamentals have taken hold here.
Johnson grass followed the railroad trail, because the mules like it.
Salt cedar is an awful invasive.
And tumbleweed (Russian Thistle), that probably came with flax from the Ukraine, has fireproof seeds and a fool proof method of dispersal, unlatching itself wholesale and rolling its way across the landscape.
Jan 12. Sea change coming north to Midland. The land flattens, and if you aren’t careful you’ll say it all looks the same, and empty. Yellow grass. Blue sky. Black mesquite trees (shrub-sized) that look charred against the grasses. All these dinosaurs of equipment lying around too. And corrugated metal sheds. Midland is all business. Until sunset, when you bathe in the light of West Texas, whatever your circumstance.
The Permian Basin is 250 million yrs old, and underlies the later formation of the Southern High Plains — the Llano Estacado. It’s a tilting plateau that is well demarcated by escarpments and a river, and blurring on the southeast end into the next ecosystem of the Edwards Plateau. It’s short grass prairie, high altitude. And in between the oil and the top soil is the Oglalla Aquifer, the largest body of underground water on the continent. The Permian basins were formed and then filled in as the huge inland sea dried out, along with the mass extinction was a lot of salt amid the critters we now use as oil. Below/above. It’s a delicate place, a place in between a lot of other places and subject to extreme changes in weather, surface water, and fortunes seem to play much the same way, made and broken (the dust bowl, droughts, oil booms and busts).
I’m trying to pay attention to the tensions here – oil/water/land, permeable/solid, brief time/deep time.
Burr Williams called the Llano one vast ecotone . In my estimation, that’s as interesting as a mesocosm. Burr Williams is the director of Sibley Nature Center, dedicated to all things Llano Estacado, training an army of local citizen naturalists, exemplary in the deep study of a very site-specific ecosystem, and by extension, a model at understanding networks, and the networks of networks that make up the world we are enmeshed in. The Center is a dream, full of books, exhibits, and loads of taxidermy, it’s at once polished and handmade, exceptions are the rule. Its idiosyncrasies make it magical. I think Burr’s collection of Day of the Dead sculptures is as telling as the beehive installed behind glass embedded in the wall, or the fecund library. I get the feeling Burr is as enthused by a new niche created by sewage effluvient as an ancient fossil, an unspoiled salina. Nature abhors a vacuum, he said. Sibley’s teaching program about the Llano is years-long, and includes cultures, history, and interferences as well as things we think of as natural or native.
Here are a few examples of writings from Sibley Nature Center: The Texon Scar The Ecology of Oil Well Pads Behaviors of Animals in Our Area
Monahans Sand Hills Park. I went on the way into Odessa. The park is a tiny gem, and in winter, empty of all but two long-term caravaners with lapdogs in jackets. It has a very Richard Misrach desert vibe. Within the larger Llano, there are these micropockets of sand dunes, aided by tenacious plants that hold much of them together while the nude bits of silky fine sand are moving forms, alive with birds, and abundant animal tracks. I loved how the blackbirds were running the camping area. There’s oil in them thar sands, too.
Jan 13. A large circle was driven from Midland to Kermit to Wink to Wickett and back through Monahans at Golden Hour. $25 dollars in gas. It’s far more efficient to stay home, but then you continue to think you know what you’re talking about.
Jan 10. Erika and Dahr said they felt like living in this part of the desert often felt like living at the bottom of the ocean, and it’s so true. An ancient sea whose waters rubbed mountains down to soft and toothless nubs. Surprising reefs and volcanic moments you only find of you take the time to dive. Slow motion and eyes open.
I drove to Valentine to see the Prada Shop by Elmgreen & Dragset. It’s incredibly stupid. A 3-dimensional billboard. Yes, as in ha-ha, misplaced and displaced. Paid for by the Prada Foundation.
I hit the scenic route to Fort Davis, and immediately encountered a herd of pronghorn antelope.
then I got stopped by an unmarked cop car with very flashy lights, for driving 73 mph in a 70 mph zone (these are almost empty single lane roads, but smooth ones). He told me lots of drug smugglers coming up from Mexico, and let me go with a wait and a warning.
Davis Mountains State Park. Northern Chihuahua Desert. 5000’ plus elevation.
Hiked Modesto Canyon on the land of the Chihuahuan Desert Research Center, and visited their great botanical garden to get a handle on the flora. Checked in to the Davis Mountains State Park, and took a dusk walk along the empty camp sites (it’s 24º at night). these mountains were formed 65 volcanically, million years ago, and they feel animated. I saw deer bedding on the grassy slopes, and ran into a gang (a snuffle?) of javelinas who are very compact, cute, smelly and stout. There were babies, and a long string of them crossing my path, so I armed myself with some rocks and backed off. My room is in the old portion of Indian Lodge, the Texas State Park hotel that was built by the CCC in the 1930’s. It’s old-fashioned, dignified, and sturdy with thick white adobe walls and original clunky hand-carved cedar furnishings. Drove up Skyline Drive and saw the sun set over the valley – the ocean floor.
The desert was prep for the art at Chinati, and the art was prep for the desert. It’s been lovely. And consoling. And lonely. It is a good place to grieve.
“(Geologists) often liken humanity’s presence on earth to a brief visitation from elsewhere in space, its luminous, explosive characteristics consisting not merely of the burst of population in the twentieth century but of the whole millennial moment of people on earth – a single detonation, resembling nothing so much as a nuclear implosion with its successive neutron generations, whole generations following one another once every hundred-millionth of a second, temperatures building up into the millions of degrees and stripping atoms until bare nuclei are wandering in electron seas, pressures building up to a hundred million atmospheres, the core expanding at five million miles an hour, expanding in a way that is quite different from all else in the universe, unless there are others who also make bombs.” “If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way, you live forever.”
– John McPhee, Basin and Range
Jan 11 (1.11.11). Woke up to 22º icy fog and a bad prognosis for sun. Took a walk along the park road to the place with a big binoculars sign – the place to sit and wait for Montezuma Quail. A handwritten sign in loopy script says,
When do the Quail come to feed? Anytime they please!
I saw no quail, but an array of bird feeders brought hordes of pine siskins, a pair of cardinals, a ladderback woodpecker, and house finches with their shabby chic upholstered red bellies. The doves were in there, too. But I was too cold to sit, so I walked back, got the car, and drove again up to Skyline – the only place in the park that I knew from last night’s sunset I could get cell service. There was hoarfrost like antler velvet on every blade of Chihuahuan grass, and all the branches. I called my pal Abigail, and my rancher contact. Then the ranger came to tell me he was closing the Drive due to ice, and i had to leave. This is the same golden sun-kissed 60º locale I photographed only 12 hours earlier:
I went to the Fort Davis Historic Site, which was manned for many years by the Buffalo Soldiers – the freed African-American 10th Calvary Regiment who could enlist after the Civil War; and about Victorio, the Chiricahua Apache resistance leader. I looked at the restored barracks, commissary, and officer’s quarters. It was cold, but actually riveting. Again, glad to have been weathered and slow enough to take it in.
Bob, my rancher contact met me for lunch. He showed up with a trailer holding two beautiful chestnut quarter horses, that he was taking south tomorrow for a round up to wean the 500 lb calves from their “mamas.” This is a man who can refer to a cow as “mama” and “product” in the same stream of conscience. We had quite a rangy, candid, fascinating conversation, tacitly agreeing to meet in the open between our contexts and opinions. It was surprising and really fortifying; we talked about meat, conservation, public vs private, CO2 sequestration, BP, and about getting chased out of places you might call homelands.
Sun came out around 4, and I went on the 3 mile ridge hike behind Indian Lodge. Ran into a lone javelina, we scared each other (they are tiny football players), and a couple groups of deer who showed no fear, only curiosity. Very pretty deer (unrelated to the mangy goiter-laden scavengers of Fire Island, for instance).
Tonight I went to UT’s McDonald Observatory. I kind of missed the star party, but one dome was still open and I got to see the moon in ECU, and Jupiter, which was uncomfortable. I thought about the exhibit at the Hayden Planetarium I went to often when I was little, that described the gravity on Jupiter: If you go there, you won’t be able to lift even your pinky. Through the telescope in the dome tonight I saw Jupiter’s cloud band in the line of orbit with its 3 moons. But even naked-eyed, without the light pollution, the stars were legible wall to wall.
Walking on the mountain today, I thought about Richard Long, and about the impact of walking. I am helping to erode and subside the mountains. Mountains coming down, mountains going up. Time sped up, and I became a tiny abrasion.
I found out in Donald P McGookey’s book Geologic Wonders of West Texas, that during the Desmoinesian age (310? million years ago), Midland Texas was situated on the equator; and “the Permian Basin must have been a tropical paradise.”
The Permian (286-245 million years go), the era to which Midland’s great riches of oil is attributed, was a period of great development, but then: “There had evidently been a wave of death, in which thousands of species vanished from the world… at least half the fish and invertebrates and three-quarters of all amphibians – perhaps as much as ninety-six percent of all marine faunal species – disappeared from the world in what has come to be known as the Permian Extinction.” (McPhee, Basin and Range). All these dead organisms we use to run things, to eat off of, to wrap ourselves and all our shit in, are also extinct organisms. That captures me.
Jan 09 Spent much of the day at The Chinati Foundation , on the grand tour. The work feels…not exactly off-the-grid (despite being off the grid), but definitely not on the grid, either. It’s a pilgrimage site, a more stubborn, wilder, but gentried cousin of DIA Beacon. Chinati is a dynamic testimonial to Judd’s persistent, consistent vision, to his self-confidence. It’s incredibly smart, subtle and stark. Many of the works are powerful (by that I mean, precise, beautifully realized, well-sited, elegant, simple); the time of the desert and the all-dayness of the tour means you drop down softly into a different expectation of time, slow down enough by the 2nd hour to begin to have a nuanced relationship to details. Not only of the work, but of interior|exterior, here|there, natural|constructed, interior|exterior, pink|white, brick|wood, antelope|aluminum, straight|curved… the list is not exhaustible. This acuteness extends to sound (train moans, grasses hissing, the squeak of tree limbs, and the rainstorm sounds of corrugated metal roofing expanding in the heat), and tactility (more wind, more cold, more warm sunlight, plusher cat’s fur, specific gravel and sand under foot). This sensing extended to the hike I took on a rare stretch of open-to-the-public ranch land. The desert’s conceit of monotony was sharpened and pulled apart into micro-theatrics after experiencing 6 identical U-shaped buildings of fluorescent bulbs (Flavin), a vast hall of smashed and “sexually-fitted” candy-colored car parts (Chamberlain), impossibly pristine rectilinear aluminum iterations (Judd) and twin cylinders of eternally shiny copper (Horn).
Minimalism paved the way for so many art (per)mutations. The hybrid endeavors evident at Chinati have reified into sacred forms, but art|sci, public practice, art + the every day, all the expanded fields are still plastic and expanding…
John Chamberlain: “Being an artist is an initiative occupation…Art is one of the few things in the world that is never boring, and it costs nothing. You don’t have to own it, you just have to perceive it; art is free. As an artist I give away more than I would if I ran a beauty shop.”
(not any more, necessarily…)
Marfa sits at 5000’. The sky is a dome, with stars edge to edge. The moon is a mean sliver. I took a bath in the outdoor tub adjacent to my trailer. I had dinner with Erika Blumenfeld and Dahr Jamail, photographer and journalist, who just finished 2 months of intensive work on post-BP Gulf toxicity. Frightening. Look here and here for details, please.