Texas writer John Graves’ first book, Goodbye to a River, was published in 1960, a decade before the nation celebrated its first Earth Day. Even so, Graves’ poetic account of a canoe trip down a soon-to-be-dammed stretch of the Brazos River was nominated for a National Book Award when it came out. A growing awareness of the environment has only deepened appreciation for his books and essays about living with the land and its history.
Ten years ago, documentary filmmaker Rob Tranchin visited Graves at his home near Glen Rose. In this story, he remembers their conversation.
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It was a late June morning, already getting warm. We had moved to the shaded porch of the house that John Graves and his wife, Jane, have called home for almost fifty years.
Graves calls the place Hard Scrabble, 380 acres of cedar-studded limestone hill country in the Brazos River watershed about 50 miles southwest of Ft.Worth. Here, Graves built his own house and barn, repaired fences, seeded grass, and did what he could to restore a land he told me had been used hard by the settlers of the past.
Graves: ”There was a general belief that things were going to last forever, you know. And they would wear out a farm somewhere and move on to a piece of some virgin land elsewhere. Somewhere in one of those books, I recorded a brag the old farmers up in Parker County used to have on the courthouse square, said, ‘Hell, I done wore out three farms in my time,’ you know.”
Thunderheads were building in the west when Graves took me out to a gently sloping hillside not far from the house. Here was the hard scrabble that Graves had written into the world of literature, a land exhausted by cotton farmers who over-planted, by cattle ranchers who grazed native grasses to the ground until the precious topsoil washed away or was carried off by the wind.
Graves: “I was once told by an old timer here who had talked to another and much older than he who had grown up on this place probably in the 1890s or so that this whole expanse from a boundary up that way down to the creek here, was once a cotton field. That means it was good black prairie soil, however deep it was, probably two or three feet at the time. You can see it now, it’s down to the rocks. Any digging you do here will turn up more rocks. That much soil was removed by the cotton farming and probably by grazing as well. There’s still dirt here that will grow grass, but that’s about all.”
Tranchin: “It must have been difficult for you to work as hard as you did out here without bearing some form of resentment against the people who came out here before.”
Graves: “Oh no, they did what they were built to do, you know. I don’t know, Rob. I have sometimes wondered why I got into all this myself. I think I just needed to do it. My family background had a lot of farmers and ranchers and people like that in it. And I grew up on tales about them and so on, and somehow that business of land mattering got stuck in me. I think it fulfilled an urge in me to understand things that my people had understood in their time. It also created a kinship between me and the natural world in a way, you know. I won’t say it was fun, but it was good, and it was satisfying. Even digging a bloody posthole, which is a hateful job but, you know, you get out there and you’re strong enough and you just knock through rock and get that hole down in there and you set up a post and you’ve done something. Or at least you think you have, for the moment, you know.”
Tranchin: “Do have a vision of this place a hundred years from now, two hundred years from now?”
Graves: ”One can hope that it will fall into sympathetic hands along the way and be treated right. I doubt they’re going to like all the cedar, but they can get rid of it the way I did and it will come back on them, too.”
Tranchin: “Does it bother you, John, that as soon as you stop, Mother Nature comes back and starts erasing all your work?”
Graves: “No. I just decided I had my fun here, let her have hers, you know. I’m not going to worry about it.
I have not in a long, long time had any quarrel with the idea of death. I hate it when it happens too soon to people I love and that sort of thing. But I myself never expected to live this long, and I won’t say I don’t care when it comes, but I’ll be ready for it.”
The once distant thunderheads were closer now, and it was threatening to storm. Before we parted, John read a passage of his from a piece called “Self-Portrait, With Birds.”
Graves: “In recent decades it has become customary, and right I guess, and easy enough with hindsight, to damn the ancestral frame of mind that ravaged the world so fully and so soon. What I myself seem to damn mainly though, is just not having seen it. Without any virtuous hindsight I would likely have helped in the ravaging as did even most of those who loved it best. But God! To have viewed it entire, the soul and guts of what we had and gone forever now, except in books and such poignant remnants as small swift birds that journey to and from the distant Argentine, and call at night in the sky.”
John Graves will turn 91 this August.