An Island in the Sky
Stephen Bogener,
William Tydeman

(Texas Tech University Press)
According to my Spanish dictionary, "Llano" means "smooth, even, plain, simple, clear, level ground," while "Estacado" means "fencing," "fence," "stockade," or "palisade." With the verb "dejar," it also means "to leave in the lurch." "Estacar animal" means "to tie to a stake." "Quedar en la estacada" means "to fail disastrously."

In all, it's a rather bleak collection of definitions, almost as bleak as Llano Estacado itself, this last being an area encompassing much of the panhandle of Texas and parts of eastern New Mexico. It's a countryside as featureless, blear, isolated and plain (and plane) and as wind-blown and dusty as can be found in the United States. Why in God's name anyone would want to live there, or work there, or travel through there, or even write a book about it --- a big beautiful book, like this one, with big beautiful pictures --- is beyond me.

I know from what I am speaking. I had one my most memorable break-downs when I was traveling the highway through Lubbock, trying to get away from Texas, trying to escape a big bust (not the police, but a personal life-bust) some forty years ago.

My mad-make-mobile was nothing more than a 1972 VW camper, which was working fine ... but my brain-pan was leaking, had been doing so for several months.

I was headed to California, where I had lived more or less happily before. One reason for my trip was to go back to visit a shrink in the bay area who I thought could put me back together again.

But the wind and dust and clear blue sky and my leaky psyche ganged up on me. On the road a roaring sound behind me made me think the engine was falling off (or catching on fire). The side-wind was, I was convinced, going to topple my camper, leave me alone, exposed, there at the side of the freeway. That clumping below: was that a tire pooping out on me? And those shadows on the roadside: were they merely clumps of bunchweed or were they ominous vagrants, hunched over, watching me. Had I had this book, it would have told me these knobs of stuff were probably native plains grasses, known as "hairy grama, blue grama, or forbs."

I was, as you may have guessed, fathering a few rain clouds inside my head. Whatever it was that drove me was now driving me bonkers. In preparation for my journey, I had loaded up all my possessions, along with a bottle of pain pills and a pint of good French brandy to ward off the enemy. I nipped on these from time to time ... but my enemies were stampeding, within and without, chasing me across the Llano Estacado. In the panic mode, the True Panic Mode ... pills do nothing; booze even less.

Later, my shrink was to ask me, "Who did you think was going to get you? The Comanches?" I responded by asking him if he could institutionalize me for awhile until I got me back together with me again, and he replied, "Are you mad?"

§     §     §

From my vantage here, four decades down the line, this part of Texas was probably as bad a place as possible to go off your rocker. There were not only enraged spirits and a bleak, endless landscape, but occasional dusty, trash-strewn towns with ominous names, all of which spoke to me (too much!) --- Needmore. Justiceberg. Loop. Sundown. Seagraves. Halfway. Posey. Muleshoe. Floydada. (Floydada!) (What? No Bananaville? No Looneyland? No Cracker City?) I finally ended up in the Lubbock airport where I called my daughter to come and rescue me. Which she did.

Meanwhile, the various inhabitants of Lubbock, waiting in the airport with me, were revealed, over time, to be as ominous a bunch of vampires and witches as I've ever met.

§     §     §

The pictures in Llano Estacado are more beautiful than the land deserves. I'd copy off some for you if my steam-driven scanner were up to it, but you will have to be satisfied with some I snitched from the internet.

And the further you get into the text, the more spacious and user-friendly the book becomes. The final essay by editor Stephen Bogener is a jewel. This part of Texas has been exploited by the usual Lone Star poltroons and muddleheads for the better part of a century. The Ogallala Aquifer --- a sweet name for the sweet water from eons past, lying underground --- has been murderously pumped and is shortly doomed, they say, to give up the ghost. Cotton, a notorious topsoil robber, was and is the main cash crop here. The dust storms of the 1930s were born here, came from the machines that were brought in to facilitate farming (along with natural causes: droughts come and go; the one from 1933 - 1937 stayed around too long).

There was a "widespread use of gasoline tractors in the 1920s."

    These new metal machines, along with abundant rainfall and high commodity prices on the tail-end of World War I, created the illusion that the high Plains were one big productive sandbox to dig up and plant.

"Day and night they churned up topsoil that had taken natural forces thousands of years to create."

    The new machine-driven contraptions could eat through one hundred acres, or --- more if they ran twenty-four hours a day.

Thus the dust storms were triggered by what we now know as "The Plow that Broke the Plains," a documentary that came from the Resettlement Administration of the U. S. government. The music was by Virgil Thompson, and as I write this, I can hear its doomish chords and muted folk-songs, for it was one of the first classical works I came to admire. It raised a storm when it was released in 1936, but then the dust storms came to visit Washington, D. C. in 1937 and the producers were vindicated.

They had, it turns out, planted a nice little pun in the title. It was the plow --- although a gasoline driven one --- that caused the poor masses to flee the dust-storms that broke the once rich plains of America.

--- Carlos Amantea
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on Llano Estacado

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