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
My friend Gus and I have spent many months at The Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve on service trips with our alma mater, St. Stephen’s School in Austin. Desert homecomings: Gus, Riley and I are headed out that Davis Mountains way, to those wide-open valleys where my soul-bird goes to roost.
The Davis Mountains are a sky island rising from a desert ocean. Mountain-dwelling populations have been developing independently here for thousands of years, creating an ecology that’s unique worldwide. These mountains are one of just a few Texas ecosystems that support species like the Davis Mountains Cottontail, Montezuma Quail, Mountain Short-horned Lizard, Mexican pinyon pine, ponderosa pine, Mexican Spotted Owl, quaking aspen and elk. The only Mexican Dwarf Oaks in the U.S. live here. The Mount Livermore Sandwort and a unique pondweed exist only here in the world. This range is also home to mountain lions, black bears, and until the 1930s, wolves. A lone grizzly was even shot here around 1890.
We’re beautifully remote—an hour from a small town, no air traffic, and the darkest skies in the continental U.S. Greg Crow, the Preserve Manager, said, “The silence here is deafening.” Still your breath and it rushes in, a humming pressure on your ears. The stillness here moves beyond stillness. Listen deep and you feel an earth-deep motion—coursing activity on a quieter, much greater scale and timeframe.
The sun’s setting through stormclouds, but we’re moving out. We drive into the preserve’s middle—into wilderness—and climb a ridge through pelting drizzle. At home, we’re surrounded mostly by humanness. Out here, we have the great privilege of surrounding ourselves with non-humanness. And Lady Davis Mountains sure is flaunting it: the eastern ridge glows golden; from its crest spurt two rainbows, turned neon-green by the thunderstorm moving up the valley. This unnerving yellow storm-light, black, wrathful clouds—it seems almost unnatural, like the Second Coming, Dies Irae.
Dark falls along with rain. As we look for a campsite, I stop dead. My hair stands up in animal alarm. A massive, long-dead Pinyon stands claw-like in the rectangular clearing, exactly in the middle, watchful. Not Welcome Here. I try to feel comfortable. Not Welcome Here. Gus and I make tense eye contact. “We’re not sleeping here,” he says.
We camp elsewhere and sit outside in rain and total dark, listening to thunder in the valley and wind whipping trees. Intermittent lighting flashes reveal the dark, animistic enormity of the pine valley, full of nocturnal eyes, the strange tree’s brooding malevolence, the violence of lightning and thunder overhead. We’re very alone. It’s important sometimes to feel that vague hunter-gatherer terror in your gut, that insignificance in the face of nature. With patience it blossoms into awe—later, under moon and calm skies, we sit in the tree’s clearing and make peace, then bound up the ridge, exultant again at the vast prospect of unknown valleys all around.
Daybreak: the car key’s gone. It could be anywhere along the ridge! Of course, it’s not—it’s in front of the Pinyon tree, carefully watched over. These mountains are wild and lovely. We hike out.
Wolf Den Cave is a rock shelter humans used from about 1750 BCE until 1250 CE. And if it suited them, it will suit us for tonight. We leave at dusk. Greg said we’re the only recent people he knew of to sleep in Wolf Den. It’s as if we’re disturbing a long-sealed tomb, an unspeakable intimacy of night and mountains. We kill the lights.
Wolf Den appears suddenly. The sixty-foot overhang plunges back into gaping blackness. It stands profoundly inert, profoundly quiet. There is something here, a forceful tugging barely felt, coursing just under the membrane of sight and sound and body-feeling; whispering voices that demand attention, reverence. We are intruders. Wolf Den speaks, but we can’t hear yet. Riley’s voice sounds tiny: “Let’s sit and come to terms with this place.”
We’re quiet for hours, listening for the inconceivable knowledge of thousands of years of human life come before us. Beyond that, hundreds of millions of full moons since the cave’s formation, millions nearly like this one, breezes coming up the valley through pines. Wolf Den’s walls gently breathe them back out—the cave inhales, exhales.
I wake up in the night. The full moon has risen in the south and is travelling horizontally across the mouth of the cave. After dawn, it sets behind Mt. Livermore.
We hike out and say goodbye to Greg. “I’ll be back next summer,” I told him. “You’ve got to,” he said. “You’ve put down roots.” Sometimes in these high desert valleys, you hear the wind coming from far-off, touching everything for miles around, then finally brushing against you. The breezes blow and you put your hands on the ground and feel the whole valley at once in the same wind-fluid. You stop being just you and start being you in the valley, as empty and as full as warm, dry wind. Being alone here is not being alone; it’s opening into a new kind of companionship, quiet, inexorable, mountainous. And when you put down roots in these mountains, they put down roots in you.
Matt Vale is an English & Religious Studies major at Rice University.