Order Your New Travel Guide to SW Texas Now for Great Adventures!

Available April 2017 at your favorite bookstore or on Amazon today!

From the Frio to Del Rio: Travel Guide to the Western Hill Country and the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, is now available on Amazon for advance order! 

If you’re planning a trip to southwest Texas, you need this book or else you’ll miss half the fun. I give you the low-down on what to see, where to stay, and what to do that you might miss if you don’t have good information on the area. Easy-to-read charts lay out all the facts about places to camp and hike in the state parks and other recreation areas.  Detailed information helps you find restaurants, lodging and supplies.  Plus, there are Scenic and Special Interest Routes, history, prehistory, and environmental overviews that lead you deeper into the colorful cultural landscape.

Interested in military history or African-American history?  You gotta have this book for information on  historical forts dating back to 1849 and stories of the Buffalo soldiers and the Black Seminole Indian Scouts.  Love to ride motorcycles?  Take the Twisted Sisters ride  north of Garner State Park and continue on over to Vanderpool and Lost Maples State Natural Area to see the beautiful trees in the fall.  Like bass fishing?  I’ll tell you where to stay to visit Lake Amistad, a top-rated bass lake by ESPN.

Of particular interest to some is the rock art at White Shaman Preserve and Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site.  Fantastic paintings made thousands of years ago by Native Americans are still preserved in these places.  Once you see them, your view of the ancient past will change, I almost guarantee it.

Scenic Routes include the New Money and Old Art Trail, the Bat Trail, the Aviation History Trail, the Dead Man’s Trail, and others. This guide will tell you how to get there, and how to have a great adventure on your next trip to southwest Texas.  Thomas C. Self, Jack Johnson and others contributed over 100 wonderful color photographs to illustrate the book.

This guide covers the western Hill Country south of I-10 and west of San Antonio, plus the Lower Pecos Canyonlands from Del Rio to Langtry along the Rio Grande.  Places to visit, sleep and eat are included as well as information about the natural environment and history of the area.    Place your order now to reserve your copy for March shipment!

Texas A&M Press did a wonderful job with publication, I’m sure you’ll agree!  Thanks, everybody!

Visitors’ Guide to the Lower Pecos and Southwestern Hill Country

Shaman statue by Bill Worrell welcomes visitors to Seminole Canyon State Park

Shaman statue by Bill Worrell welcomes visitors to Seminole Canyon State Park

 

Coming in 2017!

 The Visitors’ Guide to the Lower Pecos and Southwestern Hill Country has been accepted for publication by Texas A&M Press!  This first-ever travel guide to these regions should be available in 2017.  The guide explains the natural environment and history of two adjacent regions in Texas that are as different as night and day, yet only about two hours apart by car. Discover the desert, the rivers and lakes, state parks and natural areas, historic forts, prehistoric rock art, and more as you adventure off the beaten path in southwest Texas.

The Lower Pecos is a cultural region more or less centered in Val Verde County, Texas. Rough boundaries extend from the Devils River west about 100 miles through the Chihuahuan Desert. The southwestern boundaries of the region lie in central Mexico, with the northern boundary perhaps 30 miles north of Del Rio, Texas. Three major rivers flow through the Lower Pecos: the Rio Grande, the Pecos and the Devils. Because of these rivers, human beings migrated into the area more than 12,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. People have occupied this region ever since, and about 4,000 years ago, they painted numerous stories of their gods on the walls of rock shelters in the canyons.

The Southwestern Hill Country sits less than 100 miles from San Antonio or Del Rio, and only 168 miles from Austin. The area is southwest of the greater Texas Hill Country region, and thus its name. Some guide books overlook this remarkable subregion, but nearly one million visitors a year attest to its attractions. The clear, cool waters of the Nueces, the Frio, and the Sabinal rivers bubble up from springs on the Edwards Plateau and cut down through the Southwestern Hill Country, making this area ideal for recreation.

I hope you will use the guide and tell me about your experiences.  I look forward to seeing you on the road!

 

 

 

 

A Better Presa Canyon Experience

Dr. Stephen L. Black leads the Ancient Southwest Texas archaeological project in the Lower Pecos.

Dr. Stephen L. Black leads the Ancient Southwest Texas archaeological project in the Lower Pecos.

Some of you may remember my whine about hiking Presa Canyon in Seminole Canyon State Park last November (see Nov. 2013, Hiking Presa Canyon). I lost five toenails on that one, and very nearly suffered heat stroke.  My husband Steve took a similar hike last Sunday, with considerably better results. In fact he thoroughly enjoyed it.

It was the same canyon, same terrain, but with a few notable differences. First, it was 65 degrees F instead of 95  F last year when I went.  Since stone canyons heat up like ovens when the sun hits them, this difference was huge. No heat stroke for Steve and his companions.  This time of year in the Lower Pecos the weather is variable, and you have to be prepared for anything. I’ve been there in March when it was 95, and I’ve been there in March when it snowed. Luck of the draw on that one.

The second difference was that Steve is in much better physical condition than I was when I went.

Steve gives the Bobcat wave.

Steve gives the Bobcat wave.

After all, he’s been hiking up and down canyons everyday for the past two months. That strengthens the quads, folks. Very useful when climbing over boulders. Now, he did have knee surgery last year, but he did his physical therapy and recovered fully.  I on the other hand, lackadaisically went to the gym twice a week and moaned every time I had to do a leg lift. It shows. I’m still bad.

The third big difference was that Steve and his pals got a kindly rancher to pick them up after six hours, instead of hiking the complete eight-hour trip!  What I wouldn’t have given for a pickup outta there!  I would’ve called EMS for a helicopter ride out except that A) there’s no cell service down in a canyon [yes, my lovelies], and B) it would’ve cost $1500.00.  So I opted to keep walking. But I thought about it!

Because of his better preparation and more hospitable situation, Steve really didn’t suffer.  He slept

Steve Black overlooking the Pecos River in New Mexico.

Steve Black overlooking the Pecos River in New Mexico.

well that night, but he didn’t hurt all over.  I slept 12 hours the night after my hike!  My body needed that much to recover. After all, I’d pushed these old bones pretty hard for a city slicker, which I am but wish I weren’t.

The beauty of the canyon was there for both of us, however, and any of you who make the trip. The cry of the birds, the flower hanging precariously from the stone, the buckeye trees in bloom. And of course the rock art. Because there is rock art, we  fool ourselves into thinking that’s what we go to see, that that’s the reason for going. But it’s not.  The canyon itself is the reason. Just to be there, in the air, surrounded by astounding beauty, as the hawks fly overhead.

Life in a Desert Archaeology Camp

Early evening sky

Early evening sky

The Ancient Southwest Texas Project from Texas State University has posted their weekly updates on the Eagle Nest Canyon excavation, ongoing in Spring 2014, on their blog at www.aswtp.wordpress.com.  Click the link below to check their progress.

A STEP BACK IN TIME – LIVING AT SHUMLA CAMPUS.

via A STEP BACK IN TIME – LIVING AT SHUMLA CAMPUS.

Peyote Fire: Shaman of the Canyons

The sun which rises every day

The sun which rises every day

Some people have asked me about the novel I claim to be writing. I am happy to say that I have recently completed the first draft–over 86,000 words in about 19 months.  The book is tentatively called Peyote Fire, and is about the first peyote shaman.

The protagonist, Deer Cloud, is painting the stories of the Powerful Ones in a stone alcove high above the

Lower Pecos Canyonlands

Lower Pecos Canyonlands

river. His grandfather Panther Claw consecrated the alcove when Deer Cloud was a boy, especially for him to paint.  The two spent many years tracing designs on the ground to arrive at the best composition to honor the gods and preserve their greatness for generations to come. When Panther Claw dies, Deer Cloud’s life takes a dramatic turn.

The book is set in the Archaic Lower Pecos, or about 4000 years ago in the area of the confluence of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande, bounded on the east by the Devil’s River. The Rain Bringer clan lives in the canyons , river banks, and uplands of this territory. There are many magnificent, brilliantly painted rock shelters that tell the stories of their gods within their lands.

Rock Art from the Archaic Lower Pecos

Rock Art from the Archaic Lower Pecos

I have used archeological reports and treatises written about the people of the Archaic Lower Pecos as a factual base for the story.  I have tried to make descriptions of everyday life as accurate as possible, given what we know.  But we do not fully know the people’s understanding of their world. As a stand-in for their undoubtedly rich religious and philosophical life, I am relying upon ethnographies of the Huichol people of Mexico, whom some suspect may be distantly related.  I’ve had to strip out every  agricultural mention in the Huichol mythologies, and other modern strains, such as cultural changes brought on by contact with the Spanish, in order to seek an Archaic core.

From these core beliefs and descriptions of Huichol ceremonies, I have constructed a fictional world view that pervades the Rain Bringers’ lives.  This world view brings meaning to their lives and explains the natural phenomena that surrounded them; the same mysteries that surround us today.

I have a list of revisions two pages long which I am working through now.  When I get that done, I will start completely over to add characterization and nuance (hopefully) to the manuscript.  I hope to have it finished and ready to shop around by next June. (Which means I’d better get to work!)

I’m not sure how it will be published yet, but I know I want an ebook version.  My son Miles, the composer and computer dude,  is writing music for the electronic book.  I may also add a bit of video of the landscape, just to set the mood.  There will also be plain, unenhanced,  paper copies, whatever publishing route I choose.

Thank you for reading my blog, and I hope you will read the book when it becomes available. Stay tuned for another year to find out.

The Great Transformer, Grandfather Fire

The Great Transformer, Grandfather Fire

Ow! Aching Teeth in the Lower Pecos Archaic

Tooth loss is no laughing matter

Tooth loss is no laughing matter

How are your teeth? Probably better than the people living in the Lower Pecos region of Texas 4000 years ago (plus or minus).  We should count our lucky stars that we have toothbrushes and dentists.  Archaic people’s dental problems must have caused them great pain, with very little to ameliorate the situation, and affected many areas of their lives.

Many, if not most, of the adult Archaic skeletons discovered by archeologists in the area of Texas where the Pecos river meets the Rio Grande, show that the population was relatively free of disease except for extreme tooth decay (Rose, et al., 1988; Turpin, 1994).  Mailloux (2003) analyzed teeth from 38 Archaic skeletons and found that the majority of the tooth crowns had been “obliterated.”   This high incidence of tooth decay and tooth loss has been attributed to the sugar content of the diet, which partially consisted of large quantities of prickly pear and agave (Turpin, Henneberg and Riskind, 1986; Danielson, 1998).

Watch this 2 minute video to understand what happens when a tooth becomes decayed. If it does not load automatically, just hit “watch it on YouTube.”

You can easily see how tooth decay and abscess would be painful.  There are other consequences if many teeth are affected or missing (as is the case with the above mentioned skeletons). First, there is the problem of eating. Food would need to be mashed and carefully swished around the mouth to get the benefit of saliva, which breaks down certain chemicals in food, then carefully swallowed so as not to choke.  This type of food preparation would be time consuming in the stone age kitchen, and impose an extra burden on the chef. So that big hunk of charcoaled venison you wanted for dinner is definitely out.  You get raw mashed venison liver instead. Probably healthy, but not so good in a taco.

In addition, a lack of teeth causes a loss of support for the lips and cheeks, giving a “sunken in” look to the

This lady with missing teeth may have trouble being understood

This lady with missing teeth may have trouble being understood

lower third of the face. This causes the tongue to broaden out and affects pronunciation of many words.  We have many consonants in English which require the tongue to strike the teeth for proper pronunciation. For instance, think of the sound of the letter “t”.  Feel how the tongue curls to strike the upper teeth when you repeat the sound.   Not being able to do this would make it difficult to communicate clearly and undoubtedly cause frustration to all parties.

Eventually, the loss of many teeth can reduce the flow of saliva in the mouth. Saliva washes away bits of food on the teeth and neutralizes acids produced by bacteria in the mouth.  Without this A) you get dry mouth, which is not very comfortable in the desert), and B) the body becomes more prone to heart disease, which tooth-painmeans you probably die young (as most of the skeletons discussed above did).

Having fewer teeth in the mouth causes progressive bone loss in the jaw, which in turn causes the lower third of the face to collapse even more. Recent studies have demonstrated a link between periodontal bone loss and osteoporosis, which causes brittle bones that easily break. Again, not good if you must climb in and out of the rugged canyons of the region to find dinner.  The poor condition of their teeth undoubtedly caused shorter lives and many problems for the people affected.

People of the Archaic Lower Pecos had few remedies for all this tooth ache. They did have willow bark  however  ( See my blog entry of April 8, 2013)  for the pain-killing

Lechugilla quids found in rock shelters

Lechuguilla quids found in rock shelters

properties of willow bark.)  Willow bark contains the same active ingredients as aspirin and would have been an effective medicine. You could drink it as a tea, or in another possibility I hearby propose, soak a quid (or wad) of lechuguilla fiber in strong willow tea and hold that against the spot in pain. Lechuguilla quids have been discovered in many rock shelters in the area, but archeologists have proposed few suggestions about their use. Quids might have been soaked in other teas with pain killing substances, such as datura or peyote tea. (See blogs of March 3 and February 4, 2013  for discussion of these plants.)

Another plant commonly known today as leatherstem (Jatropha dioica) was probably used by ancient people. Leatherstem is also known as Sangra de Drago and various other Spanish names, and is found wild all over the Lower Pecos region. This plant has the wonderful ability to go dormant during drought times, and

Leatherstem, or Jatropha dioica, in drought

Leatherstem, or Jatropha dioica, in drought

Leatherstem,or Jaropha dioica, leafed out.

Leatherstem,or Jatropha dioica, leafed out

burst into leaf a day or two after even a sprinkle of rain. It also has the ability to numb pain, particularly in the gums.  Just break off a twig and rub it over sore gums for instant, albeit minor, relief.Perhaps people smashed these twigs and used the paste on their gums as well.

Other antibacterial agents were available to the people as well, such as wild oregano, sage, possibly hot peppers, and charcoal.  People could make a poultice using any, or all, of these ingredients to sooth mouth pain.

If my teeth were hurting as much as indicated for the Archaic peoples along these rivers, I would have used everything available, plus a good dose of ritual from the shaman, to make the pain go away.

Ken Kramm: Creative Naturalist

My guest today is Dr. Kenneth Kramm, former professor of ecology at Michigan Technical University and the University of Houston.  He is a Texas Master Naturalist and hosts a Facebook page on bushcraft and nature at  http://www.facebook.com/BuschcraftAndNature   and a Youtubechannel at http://www.youtube.com/user/kennethkramm?feature=mhe

Ken Kramm and friend

Ken Kramm and friend

Hi Ken. Tell us a little about your video “Prehistoric Indians of the Lower Pecos Region, Seminole Canyon, Tx.”

Seminole Canyon State Park is a wonderful park with a nice campground and interesting history.  Hopefully, the video will encourage people to visit the park and learn about the prehistoric indians who who lived here nearly 12,000 years ago.  They were attracted by the rivers, wildlife and rock shelter caves.  Guided tours of the rock shelters are particularly interesting.  Different parts of the shelters were designated for activities such as sleeping and cooking.  People slept on woven mats, which are still present in the shelters.  Over a period of 4 to 6 thousand years, the walls were decorated with pictographs.  In spite of the harsh environment, the Lower Pecos Region of Texas provides many photo opportunities for wildlife and wildflowers.

What other videos do you have on your Youtube channel?  http://www.youtube.com/user/KennethKramm?feature=mhee

My YouTube Channel includes videos on a wide range of nature-related topics 1) hiking and camping adventures (to locations such as Texas State and National Forests), 2) relaxing nature videos for meditation, 3) and wilderness survival techniques and bushcraft.   I am currently producing a video miniseries on “How To Camp Out — Advice From an American  Civil War Veteran.”   We can learn much about how to survive and thrive outdoors by following the recommendations of pioneers in the 1800s.

This one shows how to forage for dinner, including “Roly Poly Soup.” Tastes like shrimp. Honest.

 Very clever. How do you create these videos?

Topics are suggested by subscribers.  Before making a video, I research the topic using the internet, books, articles and talking with local experts.  The US Forest Service, Texas State Forest Service and Texas Master Naturalists assist with the production of many videos.    After outlining the video design, I start filming with a Canon Vixia Camcorder, point-and-shoot camera, and smart phone.  The videos are edited with Final Cut Pro X.

 You also have a Facebook page on bushcraft and nature. What is the purpose of that endeavor? http://www.facebook.com/BuschcraftAndNature

The purpose is for people to share their love of the outdoors and learn from its wisdom.  With each advance of technology, life for human beings becomes easier and better. It is now possible to talk and share experiences real-time with people from all over the world, Wow! This same technology, however, has a downside: human beings have become disconnected from the natural world. We have largely forgotten important lessons of our ancient ancestors. The “Bushcraft and Nature community” shares the best from both worlds. We use technology to communicate a our common love of the outdoors and learn from its wisdom.

Had any interesting experiences with snakes or other critters out in the wild?  

After watching sunset at Lost Maples State Park, I walked a 2-mile trail back to camp without a flashlight.  Fireflies were  numerous, so I didn’t need to turn on my flashlight to see the trail.   All of a sudden I heard awful growling /screeching.  A feral hog and her piglets were crossing the trail in front of me.  The mother decided to attack!  I was scared…. Very scarred…. I screamed, turned on the flashlight and threw it at the hogs.   They retreated.  But my heart  was pounding all the way home.

That would certainly scare me too!  Those things can be vicious.  If you had to live in a tent for the next year, where would you like lit to be?  Why?

One of the best places for year-round tent camping, in my opinion, is southern California.  The weather is moderate; food, water and shelter are readily available from nature.  And best of all the region provides unparalleled opportunities for wildlife observation and photography.

 You wouldn’t have to twist my arm very hard on that one.  Why do you believe it is important for people today to experience the natural world?

See my video on the benefits of bushcraft:

Basically

– NATURE MAKE YOU NICER: communities with more green-space have lower rates of crime and violence

–  GET A GLIMPSE OF GREEN:  hospital patients who can see green spaces from their rooms recover faster and require less pain medication;  exposure to the living world can calm the mind, improve learning and enhance intelligence

– NATURE IS THE BEST NURTURE: reduced anxiety and depression, decreased stress, increased immunity, increased energy; 50% lower diabetes risk, vitamin D production,weight loss and fitness, reduced attention deficit disorder

–  SUGGESTED DOSAGE:  Stress is relieved within 2 minutes exposure to nature, Memory and attention span improve 20% with 2 hours exposure to nature; levels of cancer fighting white blood cells increase 50 in 2 days exposure

– NATURE IS INVENTOR:  velcro is an example; hook &loop fasteners were invented after people noticed burrs sticking to clothes

I couldn’t help noticing you have an insect on your hat.  What is it?

It’s a stick insect (Order: Phasmatodea). He’s  a harmless invertebrate that feeds mostly on leaves.  They hold the record for longest insects in the world.  See Cool Facts About Stick Insects, a weird moovie – YouTube

You do something different with every video! Your videos are both informative and very inviting.  Thanks for being with us, Ken. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for sharing your love of the great outdoors with us. 

Mark Willis on Photography

Rainbow by Mark Willis

Double rainbow with lightning strike–Photo by Mark Willis

Mark Willis, archeologist and photographer

Mark Willis, archeologist and photographer

I am delighted to have Mark Willis, an expert in emerging technologies in photography and archeology, as my guest today.

This double rainbow photograph is magnificent, Mark. Tell us about it.

This image of a rainbow was taken after a storm passed through the Lower Pecos region in early April, 2013.  Right at sunset the clouds parted and this beautiful double rainbow appeared.  I took a series of bracketed shots to capture the color depth.  That also helped to capture the lightning strike that can be seen in the right side of the image.

Your pictures are amazing! How do you get such wonderful shots? 

Thanks.  If I get a nice shot is normally because I’ve take hundreds of photos and one or two are keepers.  I enjoy experimenting with various types of photography to increase my technical skills.  Lately, I’ve been playing with landscape and nighttime photography.

Lightning strike at Shumla, Texas, by Mark Willis

Lightning strike at Shumla, Texas, by Mark Willis

This one was also taken the same night of the storm mentioned previously.  To get this shot, I took dozens of  long exposures looking into the darkest part of the storm.  The long exposures allow for the lightning to be photographed and it also allows the ambient light to illuminate the landscape and hence the dramatic colors.

Stars over Bunk House at Shumla, Texas by Mark Willis

Stars over Bunk House at Shumla, Texas by Mark Willis

The night sky out at Shumla is really impressive.  Most city dwellers can’t believe it when they see how incredible the stars are.  For this photograph, I placed the Shumla Bunkhouse in the foreground to add some interest to the image. It was taken a couple of hours after sunset and with a 20 second exposure.  The light area in the lower right of the image isn’t a sunset.  It is actually the light pollution from Langtry, Texas bouncing off of low thin clouds.  This type of photography is pretty tricky because you have to guess at all of the manual settings and just hope something turns out nice.

You are well known for kite aerial photography. What is that, Mark?

Kite Arial  Photograh of archeological site by Mark Willis

Kite Aerial Photograph of archeological site by Mark Willis

It is one of the cheapest and most innovative ways to take aerial photographs. Kite Aerial Photography (KAP) was invented in the middle half of the 1800s by the French.  A camera is attached a sturdy string and lifted into the air by a large kite. One of the earliest uses of KAP was to map topographic features of the landscape for military purposes.  In much the same way, I use KAP to create highly detailed maps of archaeological sites and excavations.  I have had the privilege of conducting KAP projects all over the world.  It is my favorite type of aerial photography.

You also use drones. Could you tell us a little about that?   

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or drone, flying over Ecuador

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or drone, flying over Ecuador

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones, are the up and coming way to conduct aerial mapping projects.  Unlike KAP, the UAVs are autonomously controlled by an internal computer.  UAVs are true robots that fly themselves.  UAVs are perfect for mapping large landscapes as they can cover a much larger area than KAP in a short amount of time.  The disadvantage is the cost of the equipment.  KAP also tends to produces higher resolution images.

You recently completed an ambitious 3-D modeling project at Panther Cave. What did that entail?

The 3D modeling at Panther Cave is ground breaking.  It involved creating an extremely high resolution model from nothing more than a series of photographs.  Typically these sorts of models are made using extremely expensive and cumbersome laser scanners  The new method we used is called Structure from Motion. It is inexpensive and produces results that other techniques are not capable of.  I am excited the world gets see this site in an entirely new way.

Have you ever had any mishaps or close calls while shooting?

It wasn’t really a close call but one of the eeriest moments I had was working very deep in the rock art cave of Marsoulas in Southern France.  I was on a very steep muddy slope documenting Aurignacian era rock art with an underground river below me. My colleagues had exited the cave and I was alone with the ancient art when the generator powering our lights ran out of gas.  For several minutes I sat alone in the inky blackness listening to the slow flow of the water below me and imaging how many of our ancestors had done the same.

Your photography has taken you around the world. What are some of your favorite places?

I started backpacking the world alone when I was seventeen.  I haven’t found a favorite place yet but the more exotic the better.  I enjoy working in the Pacific at places like Palau and Kiribati but feel most at home on the left bank of the Pecos.

What drives you to do this?

Those that know me know that I work constantly.  I am either creating a new 3D modeling process, testing a new technique to document petroglyphs at night, or running an archaeological survey. Always doing something related to archaeology.  A friend of mine calls me the “James Brown of archaeology”.  Not sure if I would go that far but I get a thrill out of finding new ways to look at archaeological sites and our world in general.  It is my work and it is my passion.

This has been fascinating.  Many thanks for being with us today, Mark.  

Mark can be reached via his occasionally updated blog, http://palentier.blogspot.com/ , or on Google+https://plus.google.com/u/0/117833894683564726361

Aches and Pains: Lower Pecos Medicine Chest, Part I

Common white willow

Common white willow

Headaches, fevers, and those general, ever-changing, daily aches and pains we all experience are not new to the modern world.  They are, in fact, one of the things we have in common with the people who lived thousands of years ago. Today we generally reach for the nearest pill to dull painful sensations. But how did archaic people of the Lower Pecos deal with them 4,000-6,000 years ago?    For the next few posts, I will write about medicinal herbs that were likely available in the ancient Lower Pecos and how they were possibly used. Think of it as the archaic Lower Pecos Medicine Chest.asprin

One of the most frequently used natural remedies for general pain found in the Lower Pecos was likely the common white willow.  The bark, and to some extent leaves, contains salicylic acid, the same active ingredient in aspirin, truly one of the wonder drugs of the world.  The bark from a twig (not the main trunk, which is rough and hard) could be scraped and boiled to produce a tea for pain relief.

I remember seeing a large willow tree years ago, I believe in Rattlesnake Canyon. It was huge, and spread its branches like a giant umbrella over the canyon floor. Light was coming through the leaves, pale and beautiful.  The twigs from that very tree could have been used by people long ago to make their headaches go away.

Mariola

Mariola

Another plant that could have been used was Mariola. A dry, carefully folded  specimen of this plant was recovered from Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Park during past archeological excavations. Ancient people could have made a tea for general pain relief.  Many people are allergic to the latex and sap of this genus, so please, do not try using this plant at home.

A little plant called dogweed, or fetid marigold, could also possibly have been used in ritual healing for fevers and general pain. The Navajo considered dogweed to be “red ant medicine,” and used it to treat illnesses attributed to swallowing red ants. Again, I’m warning you right here, please do not ingest red ants as part  of any perceived “natural” diet or practice.  No. Don’t do it.

Dogweed, or Fetid Marigold

Dogweed, or Fetid Marigold

For more severe injuries and illnesses in archaic times, the ministration of a shaman was most likely involved. This person was trained to sing the appropriate songs and perform the appropriate rituals necessary to comfort the patient and the family. Ethnographic accounts of shaman healing practices describe elaborate rituals that can last many hours or days. Anthropologists suspect that shamanistic practices were part of the ancient culture in the Lower Pecos, but we shall never know exactly what the ceremonies were or how they were performed.

The final plant I will mention today is the Buttonbush. T.N. Campbell (1951) recorded that the Choctaw used the bark and stems in an unspecified manner to treat fevers.  Buttonbush contains very active, bitter glycosides that can cure or harm. Therefore, people should not use this plant except with the assistance of an experienced herbalist.

Buttonbush

Buttonbush

The ancient people  had  extensive knowledge of local plants and their medicinal uses. This knowledge must have been gained over a long period of time and handed down from one generation to another, a remarkable feat. Without writing, without “science”, without Google, they determined the ways in which various plants could be useful to human kind. Such knowledge was likely  passed on to younger generations through explicit teaching.

Both the “discovery” and the “teaching” imply various things about cognition among ancient people of the Lower Pecos. Someday when I can wrap my head around it, perhaps I will write about that. To me it seems pretty clear that the extent of their knowledge, distributed and maintained through an oral tradition and remembered in the head, was impressive by any standards.  But I digress.

Many of the plants I will discuss in future posts had more than one use, and some could be lethal if mishandled. So the knowledge had to be precise, and all aspects had to be transmitted and understood in order to preserve the health of the people. Botany was a serious thing, and accuracy–or “getting it right”– could be a life or death matter.

Thanks to Dr. Phil Dering for his articles on the website Texas Beyond History, where I cribbed most of this information.  If you want to learn the real truth about these plants, go to Phil.

Pecos Experience, Day 4

Figures in White Shaman shelter . Note little man in canoe at bottom of picture.

Figures in White Shaman shelter.

Today our objective was White Shaman shelter with Dr. Carolyn Boyd.  Dr. Boyd has studied the art in this shelter for over 20 years, and is as passionate about it today as she was when she started. We spent the morning in the shelter hearing her latest hypotheses about the meaning of the painting and the process of painting itself.

This complex mural was painted with four colors, black, red, yellow and white over 4000 years ago. The small alcove where it is located overlooks the Pecos River near the confluence with the Rio Grande.  Today, this confluence is heavily silted, with only a narrow channel of water actually trickling from the Pecos into the Rio Grande.

There are a number of mortar holes ground into the stone floor of the alcove, and also into nearby boulders. The

Hole drilled or ground all the way through boulder in front of paintings and overlooking river. You can see light at the bottom of the hole.

Hole drilled or ground all the way through boulder in front of paintings and overlooking river. You can see light at the bottom of the hole.

purpose of these is unknown, but one possible hypothesis is that they were used to make alcoholic beverages of some kind, perhaps to be utilized in ceremonies. There is no evidence of paint pigment in the holes, so probably they were not used for grinding pigment.

Our schedule was so full this past week, I am finishing this post at home in Austin. Our small group was proud of themselves because we all got in and out of the canyons without having to leave anyone behind for the buzzards! Although at one time the group I was riding with in the pickup did vote to leave me there, if I broke a leg, and bury me in a crevice in the flex position. It was a unanimous vote.

We had a great medic with us at all times, Dave Gage. I have no doubt all his reflexes would have kicked in had anything serious really happened, and he would have made heroic efforts to carry someone out.  I asked if he had brought anesthetic or something to knock us out, in a case such as that, and he said no, it was just gonna hurt like hell!   I voted for the flexed burial instead.  We kept hearing stories of someone who had broken a hip recently down in a canyon, and was carried out. It was not fun.

I mentioned the wonderful food we had in an earlier post. Therese, the cook, is wonderful!

Almond cupcakes with green tea icing

Almond cupcakes with green tea icing

She made chicken tagine with olives and carrots, lentils with kale, couscous, tabooli, and naan one night. The last night we had a baked ham with raisin sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, green beans with mushrooms, homemade rolls, and

Semifreddo--Take five cups of cream, two cups of sugar, 12 egg yolks...

Semifreddo–Take five cups of cream, two cups of sugar, 12 egg yolks…

three kinds of pie!  To me, the best desert of the week was the Italian semifreddo, a type of light-as-air ice cream. Yes, we were very spoiled.

The morning of the last day we held a ceremony overlooking a small arroyo to dedicate our prayers to the powers that be. Dr. Stacy Schaefer of California State University at Chico lead the typical Huichol ceremony.  Stacy has studied the Huichol, a small group in Mexico, for about 30 years.

Offerings to the wind

Offerings to the wind

She conducted the blessing ceremony, and we left the Huichol-style offerings we had made in the rocks for the wind and rain. We had each gained something special from the week, and we each felt the glory of the landscape and the call of the paintings by the ancients.  The ceremony was an act of gratitude for these things, and acknowledgement of our small place in the history of mankind.

Future posts will elaborate on many of the sites and observations from the past week. A week in the Lower Pecos gives you a clean heart and a clear head–and lots to write about!