Just returned from a trip to the Big Bend country in west Texas. For those not familiar with this region it is a place of mystery and profound beauty. A land of vast desert landscapes broken by mountain ranges and inhabited by reptiles, artists, folks who would rather not be found, and some of the toughest, most resilient ranchers one might encounter in this parts of the world.

I’ve been out here a number of times but never traveled as far west as I did on this trip. Highway 170 from Lajitas to Presidio hugs the Rio Grande for miles. The geology is breathtaking. The landscape is harsh and stunningly beautiful. The river that separates two nations is a short hike below. When one is here, the idea of two nations is seen for what it is, a temporary human construct. Mother nature laughs at human folly. The idea of building a wall across this land for the purpose of preventing the movement of humans is so utterly bizarre that it should be called out for what it is – sheer madness. It will never be done. And the beauty and mystery of this place will remain long after the few humans that roam these parts become part of the fossil record.

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Winter in the Texas hill country means time to clear dead brush and burn the resulting large piles of cedar branches. But to do that safely, one needs to wait for a rainy spell and that is just what we have had lately.

Recently I lit two large piles of debris on drizzly mornings. The dead wood ignited quickly and sent flames twenty feet or more into the air. After the initial flame out the burn pile became a nice outdoor fireplace for the day so I pulled up a chair close enough to stay warm and read a collection of Sicilian short stories. I was only interrupted by a stray thunderstorm that sent me running for cover for a few minutes. I was amazed at how hot these burn piles can remain when they burn down. The thunderstorm was torrential but the flames never completely died and recovered very quickly when the storm passed.

It’s a two for one deal. The burn piles are gone and the cistern is nearly full. Springtime is just around the corner.

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While enjoying a glass of wine on the back porch last evening we were joined by Bianca and her new beau. It’s amazing how the fallow deer are so unafraid of close encounters with humans. We were chatting and listening to music yet they came up within about 25 yards or less, sampled the leaves from a couple of potted plants, took note of us without much concern and eventually galloped away. The native whitetail deer or even the axis deer would never be so bold.

I’m sure that these two are making notes on the new crepe myrtles and will be oh so delighted to graze on the tender new leaves as soon as they emerge in a couple of weeks. I have a solution called “Deer Off” that I will spray on the new leaves to try and deter them. It may work or the deer may just consider it salad dressing. We’ll see.

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Sadly, another beloved family cat has passed on. Salvador the cat (a.k.a. Fat Sal) died yesterday after a very brief illness. Like Bartleby before him he will be sorely missed.

Sal was a very gentle soul who typically avoided conflict. He was great company especially when the activity was couch sitting. Napping was his favorite pass time. A big and beautiful Maine Coon mix who weighed about 17 pounds in his prime, Sal was an imposing figure with a breathy, high pitched meow that seemed quite out of place. He loved to be cradled on his back like a baby and held close to one’s chest while having his lynx like face stroked.

I am so going to miss that cat. He was a good buddy.

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On Valentine’s Day morning just after dawn a small herd of white tail deer emerged from the cedar break out back and proceeded to stroll across the yard. I figured that it was the usual group of does that pass through a couple times a week. Their schedule is so regular that we refer to them as “the ladies who lunch”.

As the five deer walked into the open area I could see clearly that every one of them had antlers. All bucks and not a doe in sight! I had never seen more than two bucks, maybe three in any herd and they were always accompanied by a number of does. A local friend informed me that this behavior is not unusual after the mating season. Seems that all of the does are now pregnant and the boys just want to hang out together. They were probably fighting each other over mates a month ago but now it’s time for some buck bonding.

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The landscaping crew just completed construction of a new bocce ball court out from the barbeque area. It should provide good entertainment when company visits as bocce ball is quite compatible with drinking wine and taking in the views.

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As part of the landscaping project seventeen new trees are now lining the driveway approach to the house. Alternating Basham crepe myrtle with Mexican sycamore we should soon have a wall of canopy providing privacy for the front area of the house. Fortunately, they are all in close proximity to the well so any water used to get them established will not come from the rainwater cistern.

The crew is also removing some of the larger rock debris from an area where the stone masons cut rock for the outside of the house during construction. As a result the wild grasses should fill in more evenly and perhaps cedars will eventually come up in the area.

With cloudy, misty mornings and slowly warming temperatures I hope the new native grass seed that I am working into some of the bare areas near the house will take root and get established this summer. It looks a bit like a moonscape in some areas now but soon it should blend in with the grasses on the rest of the hill as the season turns.

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When I was a wee lad back in 1966 a local grocery store ran a promotion where for 19 cents you could purchase a glass figurine of a president of the United States. As a budding history nerd at the tender age of seven I was intrigued and I badgered my parents to get president Kennedy for me. To my delight my mother returned from the store one day with all of the figurines from Washington through Johnson except for Kennedy, which was in high demand at the time and on back order. He was added a few weeks later.

I have carried these figurines and the cheesy styrofoam stand around the state of Texas in a Wonder Bread wrapper for the better part of the past half century. They have spent most of their existence in a box in various attics. Nothing has broken or even chipped. Lord knows what is in that paint.┬áThe plan now is to obtain a shadow box with several shelves and properly display these fellows. It’s about time they get a proper home.

Thanks to this collection I could recite all of the presidents in order in my elementary school days. I began to gather trivia on many of them, which lead to deeper reading here and there and I eventually completed a B.A in History with an emphasis on American economic history many years later, perhaps because I stared at these guys for so many hours in my youth. Who knows how these things unfold??

Then there is the fun fashion aspect of the display. First, they are all the same height. James Madison at 5’4″ only dreamed that he could have been as tall as Thomas Jefferson standing next to him. Note that long neckties begin to show up about the time of Benjamin Harrison and then become a staple in the twentieth century. Who will break that trend? F.D.R. has his dashing cape (which he wore at the Yalta conference) but there is no wheelchair and his hair is ginger, not gray. Poor Calvin Coolidge is displayed with a hat that I was never sure went with the suit and was certainly not as grand as McKinley’s top hat. At least he is not wearing spats. But then, Calvin was never one for trendy fashion. Some are standing at attention, some are gesturing. Harry Truman seems to be pleading. Must have been when his approval poll numbers were in the 20’s.

I’m glad to have rediscovered them and I look forward to getting that shadow box display up on a wall. Stay tuned.

Full Greco-Roman revival styrofoam display.

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Madison, larger than life.

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Coolidge and his hat with a pleading Truman in the background.

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Amazing to witness the evolution of photo voltaic technology. As China flooded the market with cheap panels over the past few years, putting many American manufacturers out of business, First Solar employed robotics and new technology to undercut even the cheapest imports.

My take is that a heavy targeted investment in R&D to stay on trend with development in technology combined with targeted tax incentives and training of a new work force would be far more effective and better for the economy than the imposition of tariffs that only serve to raise the prices of soon to be obsolete panels.

But then, those measures would take money, political will, and leadership.

I’m not holding my breath.

The ravine is now cleared of dead trees and low branches and there is now a nice view from the mouth near the road all the way up to the caves. Debris is stacked along the way waiting to be burned on the next wet day. Overall I am happy with the results and I look forward to hiking it from end to end.

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