College students Matt Vale and Riley Engemoen are traveling throughout Texas this summer, visiting Conservancy preserves and documenting their adventures through Matt's pen and Riley's video camera.
By Matt Vale
We leave for the archeological dig at Independence Creek Preserve in the heat of day; once we get there, the place is dead asleep. We pitch our tent on the first thing we see: an inexplicable runway (the former owners’) and eat cold soup; play guitar on the center stripe. Javelina hooves clatter across the moonlit asphalt, our little island of the known in the big dark valley, and crash back into the primordial brush; the spirit world, it seems like.
Sunrise reveals the valley. Independence creek is dramatic—a shimmering blue ribbon cutting through mesa desert. We come to the pools of Caroline Spring and I think we’ve woken up in a 12th century Persian garden. Impossibly clear blue water; an oasis in the wilderness. The Conservancy protects a tremendous amount of freshwater: Caroline Spring contributes 3000 to5,000 gallons per minute to Independence Creek, which, as a tributary, roughly doubles the flow of the Pecos River and cuts its total suspended solids almost in half. Downstream, Lake Amistad and the Gulf of Mexico feel those benefits.
It’s a true wildlife oasis: most of the surface water around here is too salty; Independence Creek and her springs provide crucial freshwater to the Lower Pecos. State threatened fish—the Proserpine Shiner, Rio Grande Darter and Headwaters Catfish—thrive here alongside rare snail species. The abundant water supports a riparian corridor, which provides important habitat for migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and Neotropical species.
The water is lovely. But there’s more going on: the excavation of a site discovered by the Conservancy’s Lower Pecos Program Coordinator, Lisa Wrinkle. In 2004, a one hundred year flood eroded the banks of Dry Creek, behind Lisa’s house. While hiking with her mom in 2009, Lisa spotted a jawbone stuck in the newly exposed cut bank, plus some vertebrae and fire-cracked rock—rocks that prehistoric people used as hearths. Lisa’s a trained wildlife biologist; she identified the remains as bison, and knew that their proximity to fire-cracked rock was significant.
Archeologists at the Center for Big Bend Studies (CBBS) at Sul Ross University told her to excavate as much as she could before the bank eroded further. Turns out Lisa’s a natural—“On my kitchen table, I set up an impromptu lab. It was pretty labor-intensive. But it was fun.” She set up the grid system on the bank, picked dirt out of all the bones, preserved them by painting on special resin, and photographed everything.
Even with experts here, Lisa’s work has been critical. Sam Cason, Project Archeologist at CBBS said, “When we saw the work Lisa had done, we said ‘yeah, that’s about exactly what we would’ve done.” She’s been the watchful protector: on the night of the archeologists’ first visit, Lisa checked on the bones during a heavy downpour. They were crumbling from the bank and the creek was rising. She called in what you might call an Archeology Triple-Action-Strike-Force-Delta-Squad: Sam’s crew descended with headlamps and rescued the bones before they washed away. A rare archeological emergency.
For the archeologists, it’s fortunate that Lisa has so thoroughly looked after the site. Sam says that the exact spatial relationships between the artifacts as they sit in the dirt—their provenience—tells you a lot: how the animal died, whether people or scavengers dismembered it; even the mobility patterns and size of the group of people. “Largely what we do is retrieval of information,” Sam says. “Not just artifacts and treasures.” And it’s important information—this site contains the first evidence of bison hunting in this area.
“And wilderness is paradise enow…”
It’s hot at the dig; Riley and I flee for the loving arms of the creek. The austere desert freely gives extravagant gifts here—I feel like taking it up on its offer, sleeping in the rock shelter just downstream, sitting on the creek’s bank and listening, learning to live off her blessings.
We chase the sunset down to the Pecos, where she meets Independence Creek—we pass through a stand of oaks to the sandy shore, into a cathedral of cliff, sky, river, desert. The air hums with the movements of sundown, all the light-poetics of the spinning earth. Massive, angular boulders are strewn along the base of the cliff like careless die, and in the blue gloaming, bat silhouettes chirp above my head and echo against the cliffs. The cliff-sky ceiling is a vaulting bigness; under it, I feel rain-dancelike and expanded. And slipping into the dark channel I feel the benevolence of this water in the thirsty desert, the wide-open yearning to clamber up one of the boulders, slapping hands and feet, and howl in unknown syllables for the hell of being alive in a body; for all this outrageous river and rock and desert and space. Then leap off the boulder for the sake of meeting the dark water in a crash of bewilderment, uproar.
10:00—near-full moon—Riley says, “We should sleep here.” We drive back to shovel down dinner and return as fast as we can. But we realize we have no charged camera batteries, no free memory cards. Had to spend the evening appeasing the technology. There are times when luxuries are loathsome things—slept indoors away from the Creek, the Pecos, feeling like a cowhand pining for his wild desert sweetheart.