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!

The Nueces River: Rio Escondido– New from Margie Crisp

Camp Wood Crossing on the Nueces River

Camp Wood Crossing on the Nueces River–painting by William Montgomery


I’m happy to have Margie Crisp as my guest today. Margie has a new book coming out in Spring 2017 called The Nueces

Margie Crisp with a 7 foot Texas Indigo snake

Margie Crisp with a 7 foot Texas Indigo snake.

River: Rio Escondido.  She is also the author and illustrator of the award-winning book River of Contrasts: The Texas Colorado, published by Texas A&M Press. River of Contrasts won the Texas State Historical Association Award for the best illustrated book on Texas History and Culture in 2012, and the Best Book of Non-Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters, also in 2012. You can learn more about her at www.margiecrisp.com, or www.coloradorivertx.com.

Welcome, Margie. I know you traveled over 800 miles along the Colorado River to write River of Contrasts. How did you do that? Mary, first of all thanks for this interview. I’m a big fan of yours so this is a thrill. To be

honest, when I started my research for River of Contrasts: The Texas Colorado, I didn’t have a clue what I was getting

River of Contrasts--Available now at book stores and Amazon

River of Contrasts–Available now at book stores and Amazon

myself into. I didn’t have any training as a writer (though I had taken a few courses from the Texas Writers’ League) and ended up just following the issues and subjects that interested me. Luckily the river’s geography determined the structure of the book. I chose to start at the headwaters so I pointed my car northwest and started driving. In the upper basin the river is nothing but a trickle so I asked ranchers for permission to walk along the river. When I started exploring the river’s middle reaches I began hauling my kayak along but only the reservoirs held enough water for boating. The best paddling was without a doubt in San Saba County and down to the head of Lake Buchanan where the river runs through limestone canyons and pecan bottoms. From the Highland Lakes to the coast I paddled numerous day trips and a few overnight trips. I wish I could say I’d run the river in one trip from the headwaters to the Gulf but by taking many shorter trips I got to experience the river through flood, drought, and different seasons.

Did you do something similar for your new book on the Nueces River? I started the project the same way—looking on maps and then taking off in my car with camera, coffee and sleeping gear. I’d spent time along the Nueces but I’d never followed the river. Because my husband, artist William (Bill) Montgomery agreed to create the art for the book, we took trips to the river together as well as separately. We started the project in the midst of a record drought and it wasn’t until the fall of 2015 that there was sufficient water for paddling the upper sections. So most of our paddling and boating trips were in the lower part of the river.

What made you want to take on such a project? I am passionate about Texas rivers. Historically people relied upon

My photo of Camp Wood Crossing

Photo of Camp Wood Crossing by Mary S. Black

our rivers for food, water and transportation. A look at settlement patterns shows camps, farms and towns clustered around waterways and moving from the coast inland along the rivers. Nowadays, the people of Texas seem to have forgotten just how essential rivers are to our communities. There has been a shift towards viewing rivers as the private domains of the wealthy instead of as the great common resources that they are. I try to entertain and engage readers long enough to slip in a little education but ultimately I hope to help people feel a connection and appreciation for our amazing Texas rivers.

Traveling down these rivers requires significant time and energy. What advice would you give someone about a long river trip? Honestly there are so many variables with weather and river conditions that it is impossible to plan for every contingency, but sunscreen, a good hat, and a set of dry clothes are my essentials. Plus, lots of water and snacks!

Tell us about your other art. What media do you work in? What subjects intrigue you? I’ve worked in a variety of media over the years. Currently I’ve been working on a number of large watercolor and pencil drawings for a January 2017 show at the University of Mary Hardin Baylor in Belton. My art is based upon my personal experiences in the natural world so local flora and fauna are my mainstays.

Fish Camp by

Fish Camp by William Montgomery

You’ve exhibited many, many places and have work in the Austin Museum of Art. Do you have any exhibits coming up next spring so people can get a taste of the new book? When I considered the Nueces River project, I realized that I wanted to research and write but creating the art was daunting (the Colorado River book took over five years). Luckily my husband was interested in the project and he created a body of artwork (oils, watercolors, pen & ink) for the book. It was great to work together but we describe our journey as being parallel tracks: my writing and his art are our individual responses to joint experiences. I don’t describe his art and he doesn’t illustrate my words. Obviously I’m biased but I think the art is magnificent! We both contributed photographs for the book.

What’s next on your agenda? I’m in an art period. One of my quirks is that I have to either make art or write. After I finish up the art work for the next show, I’ll go back to writing again. I’ve got a couple of ideas for novels and there are lots of wonderful rivers to explore!

Many thanks for joining us today. I’m looking forward to tracing the Nueces with your new book. 

Seth Avant: Photographer of Things Often Unseen

Seth Avant in the middle of Matisse

Seth Avant in the middle of Matisse

Today my guest on the blog is Seth Avant.  Seth is a photographer and sometimes art teacher in Laredo, Texas. He also likes to ride his motorcycle to search out hidden places.  He has an online gallery at  www.sethavant.com.

Photo by Seth Avant

Photo by Seth Avant

1. How did you begin taking pictures, Seth?

I started shooting in the sixth grade with my mother’s old Argoflex Seventy Five which used 620 film. You hung it around your neck and looked down into it. I still have it. I was raised on on the road and was born to roam. My father was a geologist I began to travel with him as a pre-schooler. He showed me how much there was to see along the road. Dad was an aviator in WWII and great vision. He could spot a horned toad or a ground squirrel way down the road. “You’ve got to be alert!”, he would always say if I missed something.

I have always had a camera. I bought my first SLR while in college, studying art. The camera was a tool for me, photography wasn’t my medium. Late in my education I began to use the camera in conjunction with screen printing.

I didn’t really become serious about photography until much later in life. I was travelling around quite a bit and looking at things that interest me and realized others people might be interested in those things too.

Photo by Seth Avant

Photo by Seth Avant

2. What are some of your favorite subjects or sites for photography? Why do you like them?

I recently began photographing the cartoneros here in Laredo. They are the people who go out each evening and collectcardboard boxes from the downtown merchants to sell to recyclers in Mexico. I’ve also been shooting rusty boxcars quite a bit lately. I like the textures and the shadows under the peeling paint. The deep gouges in the metal from years of rough use fascinates me.

I’ve always been interested in ruins and abandoned places. Probably some of that comes from visiting old ghost towns and gold mine in Colorado as a young boy. Real de Catorce in Mexico is one my favorite places to explore and shoot. It’s an old mining town in the state of San Luis Potosi that was abandoned but made a comeback due to tourism. It’s also where the Huichol people make their annual pilgrimage to collect peyote and have ceremonies on nearby Cerro Quemado. I’ve been there twice and I want to return. There is still a lot in those mountains that I haven’t seen.

Photo by Seth Avant

Photo by Seth Avant

My love of railroads comes from my Uncle Bubba, who was a brakeman on the Cotton Belt and lived in Commerce, Texas. When I stayed with my grandparents, He would come pick me up on Saturday morning and we would go down to the depot and he’d go get a big ring of keys off the wall and then we would go climb up on the locomotives and the cabooses, which were his second home. There was a roundhouse and repair shops in Commerce, also. All of that is gone now.

I shoot things that most people wouldn’t take a second glance at. I believe that everything is interesting, how it is presented is what is important. Doors have been a favorite subject of mine for years. I’m especially interested in the heavy Spanish Colonial type doors that are common in my part of the world. My grandparent’s home in Commerce had doors with transoms and skeleton key locks. Old door hardware and hinges interest me. It’s not hard to find door hardware made by blacksmiths along the border.

Last spring, I shot an abandoned house that I had driven by countless times. I was intrigued by it and returned another time to shoot it inside and out in different light. Two weeks later it was demolished, leaving not a trace behind. Many of the subjects of my photographs come about only once, so now I feel like I have to get out and shoot every day or I’m going to miss something.

3. What sort of camera do you use? Any fancy lenses, settings, etc?

I use a Nikon D3200 and have a couple of lenses. Nothing fancy. I like using a polarizing filter out doors to bring out the

Photo by Seth Avant

Photo by Seth Avant

clouds. I was taught, “f8 and be there.” The most important thing is to be there. I believe there is no substitute for the light of the early morning. I also use an iPhone 5 so that I can share images while out on the road. I’ve only recently begun to manipulate  my photographs with the computer. I wanted to keep my photographs as they came out of the camera, but a few of my peers took some of my photos and made a few changes and sent them to me and it changed my mind. I’ve spent the last couple of months experimenting with the possibilities which are infinite.

4. I know you’ve taken many, many pictures of the sun rising. What inspires you to do that?

Thirteen years ago I was diagnosed with epilepsy. I was in denial until I had a horrible seizure that landed me in the emergency room. The rising of the sun marks the beginning of a new day. I see each day as a gift and full of possibilities. Sunrises are colorful and in a state of constant change. The sunrise brings the hope of a new beginning. Crepuscular rays are especially exciting to me. I like to shoot sunsets also, but I find it harder to get out at that time of day. Sunsets are often more intense.

5. Where can people see your art?

Photo by Seth Avant

Photo by Seth Avant

I have an on-line gallery at www.sethavant.com that I try to update often and also at https://www.facebook.com/savant237. I’m also in instagram at: #sethavant. There are also some gallery shows in the works , but no dates at present.

Thanks for being with us today!

It has been my pleasure! Thank you for your interest in my art.

Donna Zapalac Mueller and the Wildflowers

Sunset on the Ranch by Donna Zapalac Mueller

Sunset on the Ranch by Donna Zapalac Mueller

My guest today is Donna Zapalac Mueller, rancher and photographer. The ranch is located in Fayette County, on the banks of the Colorado River near the communities of La Grange, Ellinger & Fayetteville. Located in two of Texas’ ecological regions, Blackland Prairies & the Oak Woodlands, the land is rich in Native Texas natural resources. The Zapalac family immigrated to Texas in the 1840s from Moravia, and have been in Texas for seven generations. The Zapalac Ranch lands have been in the family since the 1800s, established by Vinc & Anna Andreas Zapalac, 2nd generation Texans. Vinc started with small parcels of land, building the ranch to several thousand acres. Vinc & Anna were entrepreneurs, referring to the ranch as a “land of milk & honey”. In the
Photo by Donna Zapalac Mueller

Photo by Donna Zapalac Mueller

1860s, Vinc drove cattle up the Chisholm trail, later (1880s) evolving to shipping cattle on the “Zapalac Switch” by rail. The “Switch”, as the family referred to the rail site, shipped cattle, lumber, sorghum molasses and native pecans. The ranch had sugar cane fields that supplied the Zapalac Molasses Mill, as well as native pecan orchards and the Zapalac Sawmill. Donna just recently inherited the sawmill and donated it to the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in LaGrange to be restored as a living history museum, to mill lumber again.

You take great pictures of plants and wildflowers on your ranch, Donna. What motivates you to make these photographs?

The sheer beauty of nature inspires me to take these photos. Just taking a step back for a really good look at the small things in nature. The magnificent colors, the intricate details of these living organisms. So awesome! I was raised on this ranch. My Grandparents, Fred T. Zapalac & Pearl Koehl Zapalac, my teachers & mentors, taught me to ride a horse, hunt, fish, cook, work and become a “good steward of the land”. Grandpa’s words of wisdom, “Nature is beautiful. Take care of the land and it will take care of you.” As a youth, one does not comprehend those words of wisdom. Alas, as we mature, then comes wisdom and appreciation of nature. She (Nature) has so much to offer. All we have to do, is take the time to appreciate her.

Photo by Donna Zapalac Mueller

Photo by Donna Zapalac Mueller

In 2013, I became a Texas Master Naturalist. The TNM program and certification was my
“Aha Moment!”. The TMN classes, seminars, instructors/professors and the importance of the program to promote the education and teaching of conservation on water issues and promoting the instructions to be “good stewards of the land” and to become a part in educating our future Texas generations on native flora and fauna, reinvigorated me.

What kind of camera do you use? Do you have to use special lenses or settings to get close-ups of insects or flowers?

About 90% of my photos for close-ups are taken with my cell phone camera, Samsung Galaxy S4. Great resolution for enlargements, not so great for long range photos. For that I go to my number 2 camera. A Nikon Coolpix P510. I go simple now. I don’t like lugging around heavy things. So I gave my big lenses & macro lenses to my daughter for her Rock Art work along with my Cannon, which was out-dated when it came to pixel number.There are so many great cameras & cell phone cameras with unbelievable resolutions. Choose what is right for you.

How did you start taking pictures?

Photo by Donna Zapalac Mueller

Photo by Donna Zapalac Mueller

I have always enjoyed taking pictures. I just started photographing flowers recently because of Texas Master Naturalist to create a journal of wildflowers and native grasses on our ranch. My favorite subject would be native Texas plants especially the wildflowers. I love to photograph butterflies, dragonflies, birds, spectacular sunsets-anything to do with nature.

Where can people see your photographs? Have you had any shows or publications?

At present they only place to see my photographs is on Facebook as I post them and I don’t post all of them. I have been asked to do some prints on canvas. So this is a work in progress. I will keep you posted.

What are your top three tips for taking great shots of flowers?
Picture taking…
We humans are so out of tune with nature. This is what works for me.

Photo by Donna Zapalac Mueller

Photo by Donna Zapalac Mueller

*Try to use your five senses; sight, hearing, touch, smell & taste.
*Choose your favorite season in the year. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter or All those listed.
*Find a safe natural area to escape to. Maybe your own back yard.
*Tap into your senses. Close your eyes and try to hone-in on nature.
1st sense that kicks in, hearing
2nd sense is awareness of hot or cold, touch.
3rd sense is smell, the air around you
4th sense is taste.
Now open your eyes.
5th sense is sight. Hopefully this will provide a new perspective on the small things that were insignificant previously. Look for those bright colors, shapes amid designs and Photograph away.


Thanks for being with us today. You inspire me to go out and take pictures!

Jack Skiles: Keeper of the Legends

Weather front coming into Langtry, April, 2014. Skiles home is under the trees in background.

Weather front coming into Langtry, April, 2014. Skiles home is under the trees in background.

My guests today are Jack and Wilmuth Skiles of Langtry, Texas, located right on the Rio Grande with a view towards the mountains of Mexico. Their house overlooks legendary Eagle Nest Canyon, home to the famous bison jump at Bonfire Shelter (http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/bonfire/index.html), as well as several archaeologically important dry rock shelters, which were occupied by people 4000 years ago or more.  This spring archaeological research is being conducted in the canyon by Texas State University. The Skiles family has preserved the canyon and the historic legend of Judge Roy Bean, Law West of the Pecos, for almost a century. Jack has been a steward for the Texas Historic Commission for many years.

Thanks for being with us today, Jack.  Tell us how you learned about Eagle Nest Canyon.   I grew up here.

Jack and Wilmuth Skiles

Jack and Wilmuth Skiles

Dad came out here as a kid, and mother came out to teach school. All the mothers used to let us kids run through the canyons, play cowboys and indians in this old rough canyon, and go swimming. There used to be a good swimming hole with a spring right in front of Eagle Cave. When I was about 10, everybody was doing down for a swimming party. I slipped on a mossy slick spot and cut my chin. Still have the scar. I grew up prowling around and hunting arrowheads in this canyon. Our parents didn’t worry about us falling off the bluff. One of my first clear memories when I was three or four is going down on daddy’s back on the ladder the Witte Museum in San Antonio had set up in the mid-1930s for an archaeological project. Dad had been working with the Witte people and ate lunch with them. Dad said, “Git on my back and we’ll go down.” Mama cried, “No,no, no! Hold tight! Hold tight!”

Jack Skiles talks to visitors in his museum.

Jack Skiles talks to visitors in his museum.

You have a small private museum of pre-historic materials and historic artifacts. How did that come about?  Well, mom and dad had collected some Indian things, and he built an addition on the back of his store to display them. After college at Sul Ross in Alpine, I moved to Monahans and took a part-time job at Sand Hills State Park museum. I got to know Bill Newcome, director of the Texas Museum at the University of Texas in Austin, and took a problems course with him when I was there in 1959-60 on an National Science Foundation grant for teachers. He was working on his pictograph book at that time (The Rock Art of Texas Indians, 1967), and Forrest Kirkland’s paintings were all around the walls of his office. I was real interested in that. So, I’ve also had an interest in museums, archaeology, and rock art, cause I grew up around it.

Storm clouds over the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center and Botanical Garden in Langtry, Texas.

Storm clouds over the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center and Botanical Garden in Langtry, Texas.

How did you start the museum and botanical garden in Langtry? In the early 1970s I went into the Texas highway department in Austin one day, and by the time I left they had offered me a job to start the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Bean) and Botanical Garden here in Langtry. The old saloon was still there, and I had a master’s degree in botany, so I knew the plants.The garden trails were already laid out. They had hauled in a load of giant daggers from Big Bend. I leased about 7000 acres, plus our own ranch, so I went out and gathered the plants. I knew which ones we’d want. I spent a lot of time with locals and old timers learning what those plants were used for. Later they brought in some plants that are not native, but they’re not in the cactus garden.

You also wrote a book about Judge Roy Bean. That’s right. I’ve got another one I want to

Judge Roy Bean Country, by Jack Skiles.

Judge Roy Bean Country, by Jack Skiles.

publish too. We’ve had some famous visitors to the house because of Roy Bean, too. The actor Robert Redford spend a weekend with us one time for a movie they were making. It was hot, so he went swimming in the pool, and when he left, he forgot his swimsuit! So Wilmuth has Robert Redford’s Speedos!  Edgar Buchcanon from the 1950s Judge Roy Bean TV series was here at the dedication of the Pecos Bridge in 1957. Also actor Slim Pickens, he was a funny old guy!  One time dad was swimming naked in his original swimming pool when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas showed up at the door.  He was with Francis X. Tolbert, the writer from Ft. Worth. Dad jumped up and ran to the barn and wrapped himself in a tow sack tied around his waist with rope. And that’s how he met William O. Douglas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_O._Douglas).

What are some of the changes you’ve seen in this area?  Well, when I was born the population of Langtry was

Large catfish head at Skiles Ranch.

Large catfish head at Skiles Ranch.

about 400. Today it’s 14. We used to have a lot of picnics and community suppers, but now we don’t.  There’s hardly any ranching here any more. People can’t make a living. Good for the land. It will replenish without the livestock. Poor for the economy of this area. We still have good well water, but damming up the Rio Grande to build Lake Amistad ruined our fishing. Used to be a beautiful water hole with perch down there. The river used to be 40 feet deep down at Twin Caves. I caught at 48 pound catfish one time. Dad caught one that was 64. Fishing used to be so good, we’d invite people for a fish fry before we even caught ’em! There’s no deep water between here and the Pecos River anymore because Lake Amistad filled it all up full of mud. I could tell you all about that.

You’re right here on the border. How have practical relations with Mexico changed? Untill 9-11 we kept in close communication with people across the river. They kept a boat down there. They’d come and honk, and I’d go down and get ’em and bring ’em up here. For a while there were no deer over here, but there were plenty across the river. We always went over there to go hunting. 9-11 stopped everything. We used to have dope and illegals coming up this canyon. Several came to the door wanting food, and Wilmuth gave ’em food. One day guys were walking down the canyon and I yelled that it’s private property, y’all get out! Made me mad. I got my .30-06 when they acted like they couldn’t hear me. I put a bullet in the gravel bar ahead of ’em and they got out. It was foolish. I shouldn’t a done that.

What are some of the challenges of living here, Wilmuth? The biggest is that we have to go 60 miles to the grocery store and medical care.  And with less population here, it can get lonely.  We had the devil of a time getting TV. We had to go to Del Rio and rent a motel room to watch John Glenn’s first flight, and the same thing in 1969 when NASA went to the moon. Around 1980 we got a great big old dish antenna that finally worked. Jack: I was lucky to have a wife who was willing to move to Langtry.

Claret cup cactus in Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center botanical garden.

Claret cup cactus in Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center Botanical Garden.

What about snakes and varmints? Are they a problem? We’ve had  three mountain lions come up in our yard over the years. I’ve got a picture of one. Now we have a trapper that’s paid by the ranchers for how many mountain lions he kills. Last year that guy caught nine. I haven’t seen a rattler in three or four years. That’s because we have so many road runners that kill ’em. Hawks and owls get ’em too. Little rock rattlers in the canyon are most common, but not in the open uplands. They like it where there’s more cover. Rock rattlers seem rather docile to me. [As we speak there is a line of road runners looking at their reflection in the glass patio doors.]

What would you like to see happen to this canyon in the future? I’ve wanted so badly to get this canyon studied more, so I’m glad the archaeologists are here now.The very best thing would be to have a museum here where the artifacts wold be shown to the public and have tours of the canyon and make sure everything was taken care of archaeologically speaking. I’d like to see my museum stay here. That’s a worry for me. I want to see the stuff protected. I’ve had the canyon rim surveyed for a road so that people could drive around it. But who would take care of it, who would pay for it? That’s a worry for me.


Wounds and Bleeding: Medicine Kit of the Lower Pecos, Part III

Archaic peoples had many ways to stop bleeding and heal wounds

Archaic peoples had to stop bleeding and heal wounds, just as we do today

Stopping unwanted bleeding and healing wounds without infection were serious issues for Archaic peoples of the Lower Pecos and others around the world. Fortunately, an efficacious ointment was often at hand, not only along the Rio Grande but almost world-wide. That precious ointment was honey.

Egyptian Healer

Egyptian Healer

Honey was an important ingredient in the Three Gestures of Healing used in ancient Egypt. The protocol went like this: First, wash the wound. Second, apply a plaster of honey, animal fat, and plant fiber. And last, bandage the wound.  Sounds reasonable even today. In fact using honey to treat wounds was also used by the Greeks and , and even up to World War II.

When penicillin and other antibiotics came in after WWII, honey was often forgotten.

But new research has recently shown the antibacterial properties of honey itself.  Professor Peter Molan at the University of Waikato lin New Zealand says “in honeys, there is–to

Honey and comb

Honey and comb

different levels–hydrogen peroxide produced from an enzyme that bees add to the nectar.”

The particular type of New Zealand honey he studies has been found to work in a very broad spectrum. “It works on bacteria, fungi, protozoa.  We haven’t found anything it doesn’t work on among infectious organisms,” concludes Professor Molan.

So it seems likely that at least some kinds of honey, particularly those from wild organic flowers, could be quite effective for preventing infection in open wounds.

Black brush, a bee favorite, in bloom in a canyon

Black brush, a bee favorite, in bloom in a canyon

Fortunately the Lower Pecos has both wild organic flowers and bees, in abundance.  Flowers bloom across the Lower Pecos region after every rain, even a tiny amount. They grow hanging from stone canyon walls or sprouting from stone pavements on the floor. They attract many wild bees that build nests in rock crannies, even ceilings of rock shelters with painted walls.

Wild honeycomb in a rock shelter in the Lower Pecos

Wild honeycomb in a rock shelter in the Lower Pecos

Ancient people had intimate knowledge of their landscapes and would have undoubtedly made use of all their resources, including robbing bees for their honey. Honey was likely kept at hand by the ancient people who lived in the region to apply to cuts and wounds to promote healing and prevent infection. Poultices of various kinds were likely made and bound to the wound with strips of hide or cordage.

I am unclear about the existence of bees 4000 years ago in North America, however. The beautiful booklet “Bee Basics” by Drs. Beatriz Moisset and Stephen Buchmann of the USDA Forest Service (http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5306468.pdf) seems to make a distinction between honey bees and other types of bees considered native to this continent. In fact they state that honey bees did not appear here until some escaped from European imports. Hmm. Bee people, can you help me out?

The plot thickens with the discovery of honey bee fossils in Nevada from  millions of years ago in 2009 (see          http://ucanr.org/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=1544). Just makes me wonder about how much we don’t know about even the simplest things.

For the Archaic people of the Lower Pecos, however, other issues concerning blood were likely treated with wild plants. Blue Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is native to Texas and grows near streams or marshes. Yes, there are such places even in the desert of the Lower Pecos. An infusion of the plant can be used to promote menstruation, and large doses can induce miscarriage. Overdoses can cause giddiness, confusion and twitching.  In cases like this, the patient should seek immediate medical attention.

There are over 350 varieties of skullcap

There are over 350 varieties of skullcap

Letha Hadaday, adjunct faculty for the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, is an expert in the use of Chinese medicinal herbs (www.asianheathsecrets.com). According to her, skullcap may also help prevent strokes by increasing bloodflow to the brain, and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. While little Western research validates these statements, they are well accepted in Chinese medicine.

Another plant that can induce labor or alter menstrual cycles is stinging nettle

Stinging Nettle Rash

Stinging Nettle Rash

(Urtica dioica). Yes, the one I remember so well from childhood for the painful red welts on my arm.  If you get into them, the rash can itch horribly for at least a week, so watch which weeds you are pulling, especially in flood plains or shady spots near creeks. Stinging nettle affects blood flow, and can contribute to miscarriage as well as stop hemorrhaging during childbirth.

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.



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.



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.

Birds of Central Texas: 264 in One Day!

This video is from the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory.  See what a team of crack bird watchers spotted in one day of April 2012 near San Antonio, Uvalde, and Houston!

Texas is a great migratory highway for birds from North and South America. Ancient people of the Lower Pecos probably knew many of these birds (except the ocean shore birds), plus a good many others that only inhabit the western part of the state.  How many can you name?

Recommended Links:



Peyote: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part III

Huichol indian yarn painting of peyote cactus

Huichol indian yarn painting of peyote cactus

Peyote was a powerful plant helper for ancient people of the Lower Pecos. Like the Huichol indians of Mexico today, ancient people probably considered peyote a sacred plant. Peyote contains the drug mescaline, which brings colorful hallucinations to those who consume it, along with nausea and other uncomfortable side effects.

Peyote has been used for at least 4000 years in the Lower Pecos and other areas for both medicinal and spiritual purposes. Mashed and dried peyote, radiocarbon dated to  4045-3960 B.C., has been found in certain rock shelters near the Rio Grande. Strings of peyote buttons have also been discovered in caves of northern Mexico.

Dried peyote buttons

Dried peyote buttons

Peyote use spread to Native American groups in the Great Plains and Southwest such as the Lipan Apache, Tonkawa, Mescalero Apache, and Pima by the 1880s. Today, only members of the Native American Church may legally consume peyote in the U.S.

Taken in small doses, peyote is a mild stimulant and reduces appetite. Tarahumara indians in Mexico often chew peyote during their foot races to strengthen them as they run 50 miles or more. The cactus also contains substances that possess antiseptic and antibiotic properties against many types of bacteria.  Mashed cactus can be applied to burns or wounds to prevent infection. The Kiowa also used peyote to treat illnesses such as flu and scarlet fever.

This shy little cactus was declared illegal in 1970 by the United States’ Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.  The cactus continues to grows wild in south Texas and northern Mexico , but is under stress from several causes, according to Dr. Martin Terry of Sul Ross State University.Peyote_Cactus

Previous posts about mountain laurel and moon flower round out this short series on plant helpers of the Lower Pecos.


Rock Art Foundation

Rock Art Foundation tour to White Shaman Shelter on the Pecos River

Rock Art Foundation tour to White Shaman Shelter on the Pecos River

My guest today is Greg Williams, Executive Director of the Rock Art Foundation, which promotes conservation and education about the rock art of the Lower Pecos.  The Rock Art Foundation owns the White Shaman Preserve and offers tours there every Saturday.  To learn more, please see their website at www.rockart.org.

Greg Williams, Ex. Director, Rock Art Foundation

Greg Williams, Ex. Director, Rock Art Foundation

Hi Greg, thank you for being with us today. How long have you been with the Rock Art Foundation (RAF)?

It’s been about 20 years.  I first met Jim Zintgraff in 1993 – I had hired him to do a photo shoot in my business – so it’s been almost 20 years since I first became involved with the RAF.

Jim Zintgraff was a photographer, right?

Yes, he was a commercial photographer in San Antonio.  But in the early 1950s he started photographing rock art west of Del Rio, which was mostly unknown by the general public at the time because it was all on private land.  When the state of Texas decided to build Amistad Dam on the Rio Grande around 1963, Jim was commissioned to document many of the ancient pictographs that would be inundated with the filling of the lake. His images preserve this great legacy from the past.  Later Jim organized the Rock Art Foundation to continue this work.

What do you want the general public to understand about the ancient Image 5paintings in the Lower Pecos?

How important the art was to the people that left their stories for us to consider and what they could mean to us. The people who painted them had to be first concerned with survival in a harsh land but they took time from that to paint their mythology which was as important to them as their survival.

What is the biggest thrill you had with RAF?

Every trip I make to West Texas is a thrill. The country, the archaeology, the modern military and settler history, the tour participants – all are thrilling. Each time. It would be impossible to single out only one. I am as excited every time I go – just like the first trip.

Have you had any close encounters with snakes or other creatures of the wild?

Not many – we travel in a group and make a lot of noise. Most critters are long gone before we get there. It’s very hard to sneak up on a desert creature – most are nocturnal. In 30+ years of being in West Texas I’ve probably seen less that 5 rattlesnakes but we did see a mountain lion a few years ago at Meyers Springs. She was most likely tending to a hurt cub or we would have never seen her.

RAF Bunkhouse at White Shaman Preserve

RAF Bunkhouse at White Shaman Preserve

Besides tours of rock art sites in the Lower Pecos, what else does RAF do?

We are currently providing scholarships to the Shumla School in Comstock (associated with Texas State University) and outstanding seniors at the Comstock High School. We work with Landowners assisting in conservation efforts – in a recent example we contracted with Texas Tech University to provide a complete assessment of the prehistoric and historic cultural resources on a West Texas ranch for a new Landowner. The RAF keeps funds in reserve to protect endangered property through acquisition if needed.

We are also involved with restoration efforts on private ranches and are the official “Friends Group” for Seminole Canyon State Park helping them by conducting their weekend tours. The RAF operates a tour guide program with 15 experienced/trained Guides and we work with Landowners to develop access for this program (there is no BLM land in Texas – it’s all private property).

We also assist in research funding helping to defray the cost of field research and assist with publication funding. We have published our own book and CD ROM on Lower Pecos archaeology as well as the development and continued support of our website and have just established an electronic newsletter.

We also stage an annual fundraiser campout, the Rock Art Rendezvous, each October at Image 6the White Shaman Preserve and offer as many tours as possible that weekend. All these efforts are focused toward the preservation through education of the unique world class archaeology in West Texas. Our funding is all provided through private donations. We operate very efficiently – no one in our organization receives a salary.

Any advice for people new to exploring Lower Pecos rock art?

Yes – go to West Texas and listen to the country. Look at what appears around you and sit quietly. Be there at a sunrise, a sunset, sit beside the campfire – it will change you. If you’ve never been there it will introduce you to a part of yourself you didn’t know.

Thanks for being with us today, Greg.