When the myths and stories of a certain place intersect with those of a particular person, a reciprocity of giving and receiving results. After decades of yearning for a return to the beloved west Texas of her youth, Mary Locke Crofts experienced such an encounter when she went to the borderland of Langtry, Texas, to write a dissertation about ancient pictographs. Working from a rented country house near the Rio Grande, Crofts entered in imagination the lives and stories of hunter-gatherers who painted on the canyon walls and in so doing became deeply aware of her own resonances and responses to this mysterious and sacred place. This book bears witness to her journey.
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Pathways to Ancient Shelter: A Sojourn in Langtry, Texas
By Mary Locke Crofts
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 Mary Locke Crofts
All rights reserved.
In the Beginning
In the highlands, you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.
Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa
Physical contact, mental contact, spiritual contact—all depend upon how one looks at an encounter, how one names it, what one desires from it, and with what humility one approaches it. With intention, reflection, and surrender, with body, heart, and mind, I seek to cross the threshold to the mythos (stories), ethos (character), and pathos (feeling) of this desert canyon country.
November 11, 2005 Friday
I am listening to music from Out of Africa. The view of the Rio Grande bottoms from the top of the cliff reminds me of the view from the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and moves me deeply.
I arrived in Langtry at dusk two nights ago. The Skiles (Jack and Wilmuth) handed over the key to the little brick house (built to be a country church) and I moved in—books mostly. I tried not to bring them, but I told Tom [my husband] that if I were being who I am and not who I'm supposed to be, I would have books with me. I have a radio but no television and no telephone.
I have arranged my computer on the table so I can look straight out the front door with windows to my right and left. I am looking at Mexico, right there across the river from the old Skiles place [Guy and Vashti Skiles, Jack's parents]—a line of cliffs, black and beige, green hills above, and a desert meadow nearer with brush in many shades of green. My house sits on a narrow road that loops through Langtry off U.S. 90. Out the door I see the Border Patrol driving by. Out my left window, a train rattles down tracks paralleling the highway on the way to California. Big trucks truck along beside them. A mesquite tree filters my view of the deserted tourist court and store where the Border Patrol vehicle (white SUV with green letters) is now parked. I have already seen quite a few of them. At one big checkpoint between here and Del Rio, everyone heading west is stopped for questioning.
The sun is just now breaking through the clouds at 7:30. I have been waiting for it for over an hour but only now is it showing its face.
I tried to imagine Father Sun yesterday when it appeared huge and orange between the hills and the clouds. Father Sun, whose appearance you cannot assume, who is prayed up each morning by elders and welcomed by all creatures, great and small—(all creatures are small, relatively speaking!)
I left the house at 6:40 a.m. with just enough light to see snakes on the road, but when one appeared, I almost did not see it. Again I went toward Guy and Vashti's rock cottage. Looking into the canyon to the right, I heard hog sounds (javelina? feral?) and saw something move in the bushes near me. What I first thought was a big raccoon turned out to be a huge porcupine standing stock-still right in the open. I moved away to my left and it moved away to its right and straight off the cliff. I looked over and saw nooks and crannies in the cliff wall that are hard to see unless something moves inside. The porcupine was beautiful—not spiny but fluffy looking and sweet.
I looked over into the greater canyon with all the shelters—a dry creek bed at bottom and on top a windmill with turkey vultures perched on the vanes. One swooped over to check me out. It was much larger close up than it had looked circling high.
I walked down the steep road into the canyon and around a cliff. Unsure which way to go at a fork and wary of running into a feral hog, I turned back toward home. Those wild hogs are very frightening creatures, aberrations—farm hogs grown huge with long wiry hair.
On the way back home, I almost stepped on a small snake on the road—about twenty inches long, gold-green with a black head. It was as slender in diameter as a dime or a quarter or a nickel, I don't know. It sat so still I thought it might be dead, but when I tickled its tail (do snakes have tails?) with a stick, it "essed" its way across the road and quickly disappeared into the brush. Perfect camouflage.
I am trying to make this about me and here and now—my body, my heart, my soul, my story. I just now remembered that a long time ago Dennis [Dennis Slattery, Pacifica professor] suggested that I go away for a few weeks and write about my experience in the wilderness. Now I am doing that very thing and my brain moves all ways, always.
The first Skiles came here from Kentucky and Karnes City, Texas—a plantation lost after the Civil War. Jack's granddaddy brought his father Guy here in 1903 when he was five. Jack grew up exploring these canyons and caves. Now in his seventies, he keeps up with the land and sheep and the community: water, schools, roads, church. He has written a book about Langtry, Judge Roy Bean Country, and has another in the works. His wife Wilmuth is from Mertzon, a little town north of here, and is a retired teacher. They met at Sul Ross State in Alpine.
Last night Jack came over with his son Raymond who for eighteen years has been a biologist at Big Bend National Park. It sounds like the perfect job to me, so I asked how he had managed not to get promoted to a higher desk job. He said he had resisted the Peter Principle. Jack said he doubted if any of his children would ever come back to live in Langtry.
It is sad to contemplate that the long history of Skiles in Langtry could ever come to an end. But that happened to my family in Palo Pinto County on the Crosland farm on Dotson Prairie and the Costello ranch up at Pickwick on the Brazos. No Croslands and no Costellos remain where my ancestors lived and worked and loved the land, felt kin to it, could not imagine that there would come a day when none of their family would be there.
Yet in the course of things, of course, the truest thing is change and change courses through both endings and beginnings, though beginnings, to me, do not seem as solid as endings. The joy of a good beginning does not hold a candle to the bone-piercing pain of an unwanted ending.
I was talking recently about the archaic people of the lower Pecos and their art with a man who said, "I can't stand the thought that it is going to end." I said, "Do you mean the world as we know it, or the environment, or you yourself?" He said, "I am pretty self-turned." So I assume he was thinking about his life in this place, all the beauty and mystery, and the fact that he must leave it, sooner or later. His wife told me he was going in for a heart test next week. Maybe he was thinking of his heart in a way he had not thought of it before—his very real heart in his very real body that will shockingly, incredibly stop and the rhythm it has maintained all these years end.
Yesterday, when I got up, I said to myself: "Whatever happens today is what is supposed to happen. It is the right thing." I was preparing myself for vicissitudes. Chris [Chris Downing, my Dissertation Advisor] says that I am the only person she knows who uses the word vicissitudes all the time. I am surprised that it is not the most common word.
To try to gather myself, I am going to find a good quotation to meditate on. I will start with a passage from Thomas Merton's Asian Journal: "Our real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action."
An interior life? I have never been that good at that. Is that what this is all about? Forcing me inside? Pushing (or pulling!) me inward from the far outside I have always dwelt in?
Here in this red brick house in Langtry, I cry as I write. A strange miracle that I am here. I can't really say how it happened. I have always imagined myself writing in a cabin in the West, but I did not connect that imagination with this little house in the West. Rather, I strained and struggled to come out here to do a job—onerous, heavy, impossible. Yet Merton says I should "surrender to the creative action of love and grace" in my heart. Creative action is what I need, but from love and grace? in my heart? really?
Surrender—a gesture of not being in charge and, if I am not in charge, who is? what is? Do I have to believe something in order for this creative action of love and grace in my heart to be available—able to avail, prevail, unveil?
It is 8:17 p.m. At dusk I get depressed and discouraged. I wonder if my problem is not eating right. I had left-over chicken and cheese-on-toast and a cookie for supper. Anyway, I don't see how I can do this dissertation at all. I have been sorting my papers this evening. Nothing creative at all—watched part of Harry Potter.
Tonight I think I am crazy trying to write a dissertation and/or spending a month out here alone. At sunset, I walked back over to the Skiles' cottage on the canyon edge. The same snake crossed the road at the same place it crossed early this morning—a sign. This is truly wonderful country. I found bones—maybe a bird? I'm not sure.
Tomorrow I go home for a bit. I don't like being away from Tom. Home on weekends? I don't know.
The moon is almost full.
All journeys have a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware.
Martin Buber, The Life of the Hasidim
My destination is
the land of the Pecos River,
the Devils River and the Rio Grande
where I will reflect upon rock art
painted on canyon faces
four thousand years ago.
My intention is to discover some true thing
and tell that story.
My path to the rock art
twists down the mountain,
across the ridge and
up into shelter with painted walls.
I find myself in completely
I am anxious and self-conscious,
I want to become on the spot
a wise philosopher, a discerning scientist,
a keen perceiver, an incisive translator.
In fact, I am naïve, romantic,
enthusiastic about all the wrong things.
I strongly desire something from this place
and these ancient figures.
What brought these strange
figures to this hidden wall
and me here as witness?
I strain to open not just my eyes
but my whole self.
And I do not even know what that means.
into a trance is
not my culture.
I am terrified of
that much surrender.
I would like to be a seer
but scarcely see what is
right in front of me.
I play vision mnemonics:
look at that snake, notice texture,
attend to light and shadow,
focus on form, line,
color, tone, context,
and movement, especially movement.
Still I miss so much.
"If it had been a snake,
it would have bitten me."
Once it was a snake, a king snake,
and I did not see until I almost
stepped on it, even though
I was looking for snakes.
See and name: wickiup circle, tipi rings,
Rio Grande vega covered with cane.
See and name: ancient images drawn
in the shelter in the canyon.
See and name: a start but
not enough. I want more
even though I fear what might
be revealed and I dread
what might be asked of me.
Clinging to the Rock
The sky overwhelms me.
I squat low on the edge of the canyon
even when no vultures
swoop above me.
The Rio Grande moves on around
the bend. I do not flow with it.
Sirens call, but I do not follow.
I cling to the rock.
If I were to let go to this place,
to these people, to my longing,
were I to let go, I might disappear
For now, I yield only to
this one piece of quartz
sparkling in the slant
of the morning sun.
My Name is Called
Here is the time for the sayable, here is its homeland. Speak and bear witness. More than ever the things that we might experience are vanishing, for what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, "The Ninth Elegy"
Naming is a part of my process of learning to see and to hold in memory. Repeatedly I name silently, aloud, and in the written word: sky, clouds, stars, moon, Milky Way, sunrise, sunset, rock, shrub, fossil, snake, spider, bees. This is my life in Langtry: birds, bugs, porcupine, deer, wild hogs, Border Patrol. Rilke says naming may be our highest calling, but naming is much more than saying a word—it is seeing, acknowledging, evoking, remembering, communing.
November 13, 2005 Sunday
Sunday morning in my little church house. (I imagine hymns sung right here—though it was Church of Christ—no piano!) I am listening to a CD of the world's sacred music, Native American now: "Yo way o way, yo way o hi ya, yo wayo heya, hey yo, hey ya, yo, yo a way."
I left for my walk at 6:45 a.m. Decided to go back to Guy and Vashti's, wondering what surprises awaited. I went to the head of the first canyon and found neck and other bones from I know not what—bones scattered all about. Then I smelled something dead and found a rotting carcass nearby, a ringtail cat? Its skin is still partly attached and it is screaming. I shudder to remember it, dead and screaming.
Then to the big canyon overlook. A small feral pig was moseying along the little road at the bottom, all alone, no worries, seemed to know where it was going.
I tried to imagine the people of the shelters awakening and greeting the sun as I did with "Ya, ya, heya," and then I sang over the cliff, "Morning has broken, like the first morning." The sun was higher in the sky than I expected when it cleared the clouds. I made up words to "Morning Has Broken": "I find myself here, I don't know why. What am I to do, where am I to be? Don't know where I'm going, or what I'm going to do when I get there."
As I write, beautiful big birds appear out the window—yellow chests, stripes on head, multi-colored wings, pink legs. Two walk along together pecking, pecking. A third follows behind. I think I found them in the book, meadowlarks. I'm not that good at bird identification—except vultures and sparrows.
Excerpted from Pathways to Ancient Shelter: A Sojourn in Langtry, Texas by Mary Locke Crofts. Copyright © 2015 Mary Locke Crofts. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a beautiful and remarkable meditation on the Texas pictographs. Mary Locke Crofts' book is well worth the read!