Life off the grid in a wild West Texas border town
Words and photos by Daniel Chamberlin
In April 2009, Arthur contributing editor Daniel Chamberlin got down with the DIY homesteaders and off-the-grid outsiders of Far West Texas at the first annual Terlingua Green Scene. Find part one, “No Winners, Only Survivors”, by clicking here.
Part Four: The Good Dirt
Collie Ryan is another Big Bend resident who has reached a degree of fame, at least among the small group of music collectors that have sought out her 1973 private press folk music recordings. She was first exposed to a wider audience on Numero Group’s 2006 compilation Wayfaring Stranger: Ladies of the Canyon. And though her music has the delicate quality that characterizes so much of the Topanga Canyon scene after which the comp is named, Collie’s tune “Cricket” stands out with her reverberating voice and the naturalistic imagery of her lyrics. Collie is a folksinger of the highest accord, but she’s also been living the sort of life that inspired the denizens of California bohemia: an embodiment of the spirit that drives their music.
Collie is about to enjoy a second round of exposure, as Yoga Records, a Los Angeles-based label, is set to re-issue her ’70s recordings as The Rainbow Records. This will eventually lead to a series of shows in Los Angeles and elsewhere, the first Collie has played outside of West Texas in almost three decades.
In addition to her music, Collie renders the Big Bend country in psychedelic hubcap mandalas. Swirling colors radiate out from the tiny landscapes that occupy the heart of her paintings: the Rio Grande flows through stark canyon walls; cacti spread across dusty brown earth; Mexican peasants hold hands, wandering through the towering rocks.
Right now, Collie is going through an eviction process. The owners of the golf course adjacent to the school bus where she’s been squatting for the last 25 years have finally chosen to put her land to their own uses. It’s all happening in the town of Lajitas, a would-be resort destination some 20 miles down the road, a villa subject to much derision here in Terlingua as it represents the antithesis of their rural DIY lifestyle. The golf course there runs right up against the river and before it was washed out in a flood, it was frequented by the very Republican elites that are so despised here due to their insistence on crushing cross-border traffic—friends, relatives, grocery shoppers and schoolchildren from the neighboring Mexican towns—that has characterized this region for centuries.
“I spent 22 years on la frontera,” she says, “which was really an experience. The flood took the golf course out and they had to put it up higher, and it just happened to involve the space I was in.” There was some possibility of fighting their repossession of the land, but Collie didn’t want to stay there if it wasn’t on good terms. “They could’ve made my life miserable,” she says.
Collie moved down here in 1980, after meeting some Terlinguans in Tucson who struck her as being “so goddamn healthy.” After years of traveling the California folk and hippie circuit, she was eager to find a place to settle down. So she parted with several thousand dollars worth of the Huichol Indian art that she’d been collecting for about $400, which would just about pay for the gas to get her bus down to South Brewster County.
Collie will soon be leaving her home behind, which she seems irritated about, but far from despondent. Instead she’s cheerful and defiant-looking in denim and pink, a sweat-stained white cowgirl hat shading her face from the sun. She is bummed about leaving her garden behind though: It took a lot of time to revitalize the tough West Texas dirt into something that can nurture plants beside creosote and chollas .
“Good dirt is a treasure,” she says in a rich Texas accent. “In my place down by the river I had dirt that I’d kept alive and composted and built in the desert for 15-20 years. They bulldozed it right out for the golf course that’s going in there. That dirt would’ve stayed there real and alive for somebody to grow food in for 100 years. Dirt is an inheritance. You know that in the desert. If you live where dirt’s cheap, you don’t realize it.
“You’ve got to build your dirt here,” she says with a smile. “You’ve gotta do everything from the scratch up. Make everything. It’s a hard place to survive, but those of us who want to — we love it.”
She asks me a few questions about how bad things have gotten in Los Angeles with the recession and all, and I can’t confirm rumors about massive tent cities full of evicted homeowners. But we both agree that things look like they might get worse before they get better, if they get better at all. Collie’s smiling about it though, as what she’s learned here down on the Mexican frontier means she’s prepared to survive just about anything. “We’re going to have to teach lots of people how to shit in the woods,” she says, “with or without the woods.”
Terlingua native Charley Barnes is fiddling with some 1969 vintage Rodale hardback guides to organic gardening at his fertilizer demonstration table down by the community garden. In addition to working his plot in the garden, he’s got a job at a store in the Terlingua Ghost Town and is still managing to get by on last year’s tax refund. “The economy’s different down here,” he says. “If you’re a little careful with your money and try to stay busy doing something you can usually get by. It takes less to live, but there’s also less money available to live on.”
He’s got a couple tables set up, full of tiny bean sprouts, demonstrating the results of his experiments with humate, a substance formed by decayed prehistoric plant matter; it’s in part what makes the highly fertile compost known as humus a dark brown color. The soil down here in Terlingua is resistant to a lot of planting due to its high alkalinity, but there’s also rich veins of humate amidst all the crusty dry earth.
“There’s places where there’s literally mountains of humate,” he says. “It comes in shades from black to red-golds. And all the way to browns and tans. It’s very flaky, tends to have a lot of sulfur in it. In fact I handled some the other day that burnt my hands.
“They use it on big industrial farmlands and things,” he says, “spread it across large areas to bring back soils that have been improperly farmed, or destroyed with chemical fertilizers.” For now he’s testing out different concentrations of humate mixed in with Terlingua’s alkaline soil, running from very low levels to toxic amounts, the beans on both ends of the spectrum struggling, while the middling levels show thriving sprouts. While the benefits of humate are well-known, Barnes’ experiment is more about figuring out how to use it down here in the Big Bend region, as the harsh Chihuahuan desert environment isn’t accounted for in most texts. “It’s just limestone dust,” he says of the soil. “Down here, with compost you’ve usually gotta double what the books say.”
He walks me back across the community garden to show me his plot, easily the most artful of the dozen or so sub-sections. He’s got wooden lattices arcing over soybeans, Jerusalem artichokes, sunflowers, squash and a dusting of wildflowers that will soon be blooming. He’s arranged his crops along the lines of the classic Native American “three sisters” garden layout: the beans shade the squash and the sunflowers shade the beans. Corn is usually involved in the triumvirate of plantings, but he tells me only an idiot would try growing corn down here as “every insect in a bazillion miles is attracted to it.”
Next: A former Air Force attorney turns her attentions to border politics and Nubian architecture.
For more information on this year’s Green Scene, happening April 10, 2010 in Terlingua, TX, visit www.terlinguagreenscene.com. For more of Chamberlin’s photography of Texas mountains, the old growth forests of Arkansas and the light-polluted flora of Los Angeles, see intothegreen.wordpress.com.