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.
Before Riley and I left for the Rio Grande Valley to visit The Nature Conservancy’s Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve, three people on three separate occasions said the same thing to me: “It’s a whole ‘nother world down there, you know.” As we drove down, we pulled over south of Harlingen around sunset. A couple of thematically appropriate feral Chihuahuas—yes, tiny rat-dogs—approached our car and we took in for the first time that South Texas smell: the air is thickly humid and salty, a heavy presence that feels like an embodiment of the place’s otherness, the lore, the giant elephant in the room—the border.
That’s what I was thinking, anyway.
“Do you think they have rabies?” Riley asked.
We got to Brownsville well after dark and missed a turn, nearly careening straight into Mexico. The Border Patrol agent at the checkpoint directed us back towards the U.S. with some classic governmental non-speak. “Just turn left up there at the ‘No Left Turn’ sign.” Thirty minutes later, we finally turned into the Southmost Preserve. Everything black except the harsh, white pool of dirt road in the headlights and a row of palms a half mile off the road, framed like silhouettes against the orange-green glow of Brownsville’s sky. We still hadn’t seen the border fence; it was somewhere out there in the dark and musty subtropical air. Probably one of the few international crime barriers you can zip right through without knowing it.
Max Pons, Southmost’s preserve manager, came out to greet us and we finally saw the specter-like border wall. It disoriented us, as did Max at first. We offered a cordial “nice to meet you, Max,” and within minutes of rapid-fire conversation we jumped from modern overconfidence in GPS devices, to the broken basketball hoop in the shed, to handgun target practice as stress relief, and finally, to some timely marital advice. But Max’s style of conversation has a logic to it. Standing in the dark with our arms full of groceries, we just didn’t quite know what that logic was yet; we just knew he was downright entertaining.
And that we hadn’t eaten in twelve hours.
We got up the next morning and didn’t stumble out of the bunkhouse until 8:56, which earned us a “Good afternoon, sleepyheads,” from Max. We sat around and talked with him before he went into town to handle some “rat killin’.” Whatever you’re talking to him about—the ecosystems at Southmost, pet smugglers, adjustable-rate mortgages, being a volunteer fire-fighter, catching Indigo snakes, getting his ear pierced with his mother-in-law, —this guy is always thinking things through, approaching life like a differential equation or a busted carburetor. With Max, there’s no problem that can’t be wrangled up and lassoed with a little common sense. But he’s no stone-cold utilitarian. His sense of practicality loves to play on how bizarre the world can be—especially helpful in that mysterious borderland, where you can hang around the same place for twenty-five years like he has, then wake up one morning on the Mexican side of a wall that looks like the floating monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In the event of a zombie apocalypse, many things are uncertain; but Max Pons will survive.
After Max left for town, Riley and I explored the preserve. I’d never been in this kind of country before, and I wanted to flop down and wallow around in it. We didn’t cover much ground, though—we probably spent two hours in a piece of thornscrub the size of a pinto bean, looking at spider webs, abandoned exoskeletons, hollowed-out seed pods. The forest is just so intricate here. We would step a few feet onto a side trail and into hushed, jungle-thick corridors with stringy vines twined around everything, blooming Turk’s cap carpets, dappled sunlight streaming in through palm frond roofs. Anywhere you let your eyes fall was movement—insects, birds, vegetation blown around by the strong intermittent gusts. But it felt quiet and still too. And maybe “thornscrub” is a misleading name. The forest was shady and cool and comfortable. We sat under a white-barked shade tree you could sit in like a hammock, right on the edge of the forest as it gave way to the wetland resaca.
Once Max got back, we spent most of the afternoon banging around the preserve’s dirt roads in his truck. Max gave us a lot of information on some of the conservation projects at Southmost: cooperative agriculture with organic citrus growers, restoring cleared lands back to the native Tamaulipan thornscrub, transplanting and reintroducing sabal palms. Sabal palms used to go upriver as far as Laredo, stretch all along the coast, and grow as far inland as San Antonio. Now Southmost protects one of the few native populations in North America, as well as some of the last patches of true Tamaulipan thornscrub. Max even showed us an old cemetery plot from the plantation days—hand-carved stone crosses dated “Marzo, 1929.” Rough month.
But mostly Max entertained—telling stories about unusually clever rat snakes, outsmarting trespassers, or demonstrating the mating call of the pheasant-like Chachalaca, which sounds a lot like Alvin and the Chipmunks screaming “WHATtheHELL! WHATtheHELL!”
We drove deeper into the preserve and ended up on this strange finger of American soil where the river doubles back and you can look north and south into Mexico. What country are we in, anyway? Mexico? The U.S.? “The Land of Pons”?
Listening to Max talk about the wildlife and flora at Southmost, you can understand why his epistemology makes him good at conservation biology. “You gotta think things through,” he says. “Maybe there’s a reason things are the way they are.” We got out of the truck and walked into a beautiful stretch of pristine sabal palm forest—a healthy thornscrub understory shaded by Tepehuaje trees and tall breezy sabals. I asked Max about a single-file line of ants marching all the way up a fifty foot palm. “They’re going up there for moisture.” He squinted up at the treetops. “You’ve got a heck of a community up there: insects, spiders, rodents, lizards, snakes, birds, Southern yellow bats…” When you lose one tree, you don’t just lose one tree.
We got back to the buildings and met a guy named Gene Fernandez. Gene’s family has been around here for 150 years. These days, he’s piecing together a history of the region through a vast body of primary research and oral accounts. And as he tells it, the story of people living here is the story of cooperating with the land—“Their life destiny was in the hands of that river over there....You can eat and live off the land, or it’ll eat you. There’s no option in between.”
Here in this pinto bean-sized piece of the world, the richness is just staggering. Max and Gene’s stories, the forest at Southmost—there’s so much to absorb…and so many fascinating characters buzzing around the Conservancy. I guess it’s that kind of bug lamp.
We’re back in the bunkhouse; it’s dark again. “Dude, Riley…It’s been a day and a half and we’ve already got enough for a novel.”
He says, “Yeah, it’s crazy, man. Let’s cook some chicken fajitas.” Palm frond scratching on the window—“We’ve gotta get up for sunrise tomorrow and drive to Las Estrellas.”
June 15, 2011
Roving conservation reporter