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John Graves

INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: October 16, 2000
LOCATION: Glen Rose, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
REEL: 2107

Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers correlate with the time codes on the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera background noise, unrelated to the interview content.

DT: Let’s begin. My name’s David Todd and it’s October 16 [, 2000]. I‘m representing the Conservation History Association of Texas and we’re outside of Glen Rose, Texas, interviewing John Graves and—about his writing and thinking about conservation and the outdoors. And I wanted to thank you for taking some time to talk to us about it. I’d like to start by talking about some of your childhood and whether there were any people or experiences that might have gotten you started in your interest in the outdoors.
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JG: Well (clearing throat) mainly through hunting and fishing, which was pretty much standard for that time. Texas was much more rural back then, of course. I grew up, it was kind of standard, middle class neighborhood in Fort Worth but within a mile or so of where I lived, there was the Trinity West Fork river bottom, which was pretty much wilderness, wasn’t being used or anything. And we spent an awful lot of time down there hunting and fishing. And also my father came from a town in South Texas, called Cuero, where I had some relatives and they were hunters and fishermen, too. And every year we’d go down there for a matter of weeks or so. I spent some summers down there. And—but th—that was all oriented toward—toward hunting and fishing too, you know, which is a good entry point. I—I think Thoreau said that if he had a son he would teach him to hunt and fish because that was the best entry. I’m—I’m not quite sure I’m quoting him accurately but the idea was it was a good entry point for the study of nature.
DT: Do you remember any of your hunting trips or fishing outings?
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JG: Well, as time went on, yeah, I do. The—one—the earliest ones, I don’t. I can remember pretty clearly the feel of some fishing trips that I took with one of the uncles down to Rockport. Those were the days before big motors and fancy boats and so on. And he had a five horse Johnson. We’d carry it in the trunk of his car and he’d rent a wooden row boat down there and we’d chug out to Oyster Reef and catch all the fish in the world. I mean, they were—they were thick red, yeah.
DT: Were you taught how to fly fish back then? I understood you’re interested in that.
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JG: Yeah, I can’t exactly reconstruct—I did, you know, I—I read the outdoor magazines of the day, Hook and Bullet Press. And there was always a little cachet attached to fly fishing when it was mentioned that interested me. I didn’t know anybody who fly fished except our old family doctor who lived two doors from us there in Arlington Heights in Fort Worth. He had a Phillip’s bamboo fly rod, which is a collector’s item now, you know. But he used to take me and his nephew, he was kin to the White family that have a big ranch out near Brady. And we’d go out with the old doctor and the black cook, and—and three or four of us kids, camp on Brady Creek, catch a lot of fish, you know, and have a good time. And he let me cast with that rod of his a few times and taught me something about it. Well I saved up my money and—from s—selling Saturday Evening Posts and that kind of thing, you know. And I bought a bam—there wasn’t any fiberglass or graphite rods back then. They were all either split bamboo or—there were some tubular steel made by True Temper. Anyhow, I saved up $5.95 and got an awful old bamboo rod, you know, and a little brass reel, and a level line that didn’t fit the rod. Used to flail around with it, just take it down there in the river bottom. Finally caught—we caught a lot of perch out of stocked ponds down there and I finally caught a bass in the river. But that was when I was about twelve or thirteen. And I’ve been interested in fly fishing ever since. Mainly came back to it after the war.
DT: You mention going to Brady Creek and, I guess, spending the night, camping out?
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JG: Oh, yeah. We put up a tent and, you know, had a whole bunch of cast iron pans and so on and—yeah it—stayed three, four, five days.
DT: What would you see when you went to Brady Creek or other places that were in pretty rural areas?
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JG: Well, actually, you talking about in terms of wildlife and so on, I believe—I believe—and I can’t vouch for this at all—but, in some ways, there was less obvious wildlife than there is today. I mean, the deer had pretty well been hunted out in Texas. They were on those big ranches ever s—some, of course, but nothing like what there is today. And I—at that point, I hadn’t gotten—developed my later interest in just song birds and so on. I’m sure if I had I—I would have seen lots of them back then. No, it was just the ranches, you know, cows coming down to drink and cowboys pushing them around and—and the creek, which was beautiful then, I—all these creeks ran better back then.
DT: Speaking of creeks, you’ve had an interest in the Brazos River and I was wondering if you could tell how the Brazos River appeared before Possum Kingdom Dam was built?
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JG: Actually, in spite of my—sort of congenital opposition to dams, the stretch of the Brazos that I knew down through this country was, in a sense, improved by—by Possum Kingdom. Back then it was red muddy all year long most of the time because it comes through that red bed terrain out there in the running plains, picks up—picks up that fine reddy clay. And, of course, most of the Texas rivers that come out of there were that way, too. The Red River was that way, that’s why it was called the Red. The Colorado, which means red, was out of there and that’s why it was called the Colorado and so on, you know. The only clear clay streams in the state that I knew of were down in the hill country and they’re spring fed s—little rivers and streams that ran over rock, you know, and issued from rock. So, the kind of—the Brazos was fundamentally a bait fishing and cat fishing river at that time. That’s what we went for when we went out there. I mean, you couldn’t fly fish it. We—when we fly fished, we did it in stock ponds and that kind of thing. The—that dam went in just, I think, 1939 or so, which was just before we got into World War II. In fact, a friend of mine who had relatives up there went up there and guided fishermen, I guess, in the summer of 1939 and 1940, when it was brand new, then Whitney, of course, was built in the 1950’s. And the stretch that I chose to float for that book was between Possum Kingdom and the headwaters of Whitney.
DT: Can you tell a little bit about how you thought up the idea of floating the river—canoeing it—and some of your experiences on it?
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JG: Yeah, well, at that time I never had published a book. And I’d been subsisting mainly on sales to—of articles and stories to—to magazines. And I came home 1956 or ’57. I stayed—I wasn’t intending to stay but I did because my father was ill. And I got to poking around out, you know, in—along the Brazos and places that I’d known when younger—and got interested in the historical background of the country again. And so and I conceived the idea of an article. One of my mainstays back in the 1950’s or so had been the old Holiday magazine. They would throw me things to do or I’d have ideas and submit them and so on. So I figured maybe they would publish an article about a float down in that part of the Brazos there. And that’s—it just went on from there. By the time I got through with the article, there was so much left over that the book just kind of started writing itself, you know. That was—I don’t know whether you said the title or not but it was Goodbye to a River—the—the book.
DT: Can you tell about some of the experiences on the Brazos there on your float?
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JG: That’s—you—you had to read the book. You can’t recapitulate a book like that. It has no real story. It’s—it’s got the trip down the river and the camping spots and the food I ate, and that kind of thing. It’s got the old pioneer history associated with the regions I was passing through and it’s got a lot of natural history in terms of birds observed, and fish caught, and ducks shot, and—and that sort of thing. But it just kind of flows along like the river. It’s—it has no—no other real story.
DT: Part of the story seems to be based on your—without getting into the polemics of it—sort of congenital opposition to dams.
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JG: Well, that wa—that was the…
DT: What was your fear?
00:13:13 – 2107
JG: Ostensibly, the reason for my taking the trip was that, at that time, there were five new dams being planned between Possum Kingdom and Whitney, which it would have just made the river a series of stair-step lakes, you know, much like the Colorado from Lake Buchanan down through Austin and so on. Partly, for that reason, I wanted just to get it down as it was and—and as I had known it, more or less. As it turned out, only one of those dams was built which was the one up at Granbury because the Federals had started backing off from cost participation in dam projects by that time and also the Brazos water was too salty for most uses. Granbury, for instance, is using Brazos water municipally but they have a desalinization plant to make it usable. So it just, you know, they—they d—did build that one, which turned out to have had been cooling water for a couple of power plants, one of them there—local nuclear plant.
DT: I understand that these five dams that were proposed were at least a part of a larger campaign to build dams in many parts of Texas to convey water from…
(Talking at same time)
00:14:59 – 2107
JG: Well, I—I don’t—that was bef—see, I made that trip in 1957 and that was before the Texas Water Plan and all that sort of thing started—started revving up. This w—these on the Brazos were—at that time—were a proposal by the Brazos River Authority, no Federal agency, it was a state agency. The Federals came in later on that Texas Water Plan and, you know, laid out, proposed reservoirs all over the place and a system for diverting the water from east or west and all that kind of thing.
DT: Could you talk to me a bit about the Texas Water Plan that came up later in the ‘60’s?
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JG: Yeah, I—I can’t remember exact dates. I was working in Washington for Udall on the Potomac from 1965 to ’68. I was writing the reports and stuff for that big Potomac effort. It petered out when Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for president again in ’68 and also Vietnam was eating up all the money. But, I think in the after years, it w—you know, a lot of recom—studies and recommendations were made and so. I worked with some awful good people up there. Particularly like the scientists in the Geological Survey. So—so later on some of the things got accomplished. I don’t think it was all wasted effort but, at any rate, I was all—I wouldn’t say steamed up, but I was full of information and interest in water matters at that—after that work. And, a fellow named John Mitchell, who was then head of Sierra Club Books, wrote me proposing that I write one of three articles in a book to be called The Water Hustlers—the other two were on New York and California. And I did and it was probably the most political thing I’ve ever written, but—and I don’t know, I haven’t looked at it in years so I don’t know how accurate it would look at this point. But that proposal—the Texas Water Plan considered as a—a single proposal, would have diverted enormous quantities of East Texas water, not only along the canal along the coast, which is known as Burley’s Ditch after the Corps of Engineers officer who had conceived it, clear down to the Rio Grande Valley, you know. But they were proposing a pipeline to take some of that water—even Mississippi water—clear across Texas to the high plains. It was wild. They had to include West Texas because West Texas has voting strength, you know. At any rate, it was—it was so overblown that it got defeated at the polls, whenever that was. Now, that may have been before I wrote that thing. I think maybe it was 1968 it got defeated. But, like all of the other Corps of Engineers and Federal dam proposals, they’re still on the books and some of those things have been built, some of those reservoirs and so on have been built since that time and they never go away.
DT: Why is it they never seem to go away? Why do these proposals always seem to have so much resurgence later?
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JG: That would take a book to handle that, I don’t know. The—the—everybody blames the Corps well you—it’s not only the Corps It’s the Bureau of Land Management who splits several big Federal agencies that have a stake in dam building and water manipulation and so on. They just—those agencies just have a life of their own, you know. People have a whole career in them and retire and every thing and then the ones afterward take up the same—same causes and—and projects.
DT: Maybe you could talk a little bit about some of the personalities that were involved in promoting water projects. Maybe the Browns—George and Herman Brown, or Billy Clayton, or Commodore Hatfield.
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JG: Commodore—Commodore was comic relief. He—he—I remember seeing him on a street corner in Fort Worth when I was a kid. He had a great beard and he wore a big cowboy hat and he was always holding forth on something or the other. He was, I think, pretty much subsidized during his whole later career by Mr. Amon Carter and the people in Fort Worth who wanted the Trinity made navigable up as far as Fort Worth so that they could get lower railroad rates on—on freight shipments. Any—anything—any—any—by law at that time—and I imagine still—any city that was—became a port could be reached by freight carrying boats and—and so on, automatically went way down on the—on the—the rate schedule of the railroads. They—they couldn’t charge as much. That was the basis for old Commodore Hatfield.
DT: And what was his expedition on the Trinity?
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JG: Well, he had a scow called—I think he called it the Lone Star or the Texas Star, something like that. And he would tool up and down the Trinity. I—I never knew what was, you know, you couldn’t tell what was true and what wasn’t. I—a friend of mine who worked on the Star Telegram back then said that he had been part of a crew who went over and that Commodore was coming up the Trinity and he got somewhere below Dallas over there—maybe—maybe this side of Dallas, I’m not sure—and he got stuck on a mud bar. He called in and they sent a flat bed truck over there, hoisted his scow on it and put it into the Trinity below the court house at Fort Worth so that they could have the big welcoming committee the next morning.
DT: And, in that way, show that the Trinity was navigable?
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JG: That jm—that was the—that was the idea. There was—there was—there was a saying about the—Commodore—people liked him, you know, he was popular up and down the river and he would put into places that, you know, where they tell them they were now a port and all that kind of thing and—and they would have a big dinner for him and everything, and they—they—they were saying about him that—that a turkey’s a little bit too much but two chickens is just about right. But the other people, Representative Clayton, course, was trying to take care of his constituency out in the high plains and the high plains since the 1950’s have been steadily depleting the Okina—Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies the plain, very bounteous body of underground water but it’s—it’s fossil water. It was deposited so long ago that there’s hardly any recharge now. And it’s clear that sooner or later they’re going to run out. In fact, they’ve run out economically in a way in places—it no longer pays pumping costs to—to pull the water up as high as they have to. So they were looking for alternatives, you know. And so he was right in on that Texas Water Plan thing. Who else did you ask about?
DT: I was thinking of some of the engineers and builders that had often promoted….
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JG: The only one I m—ever met was Burley. He was a very personable man. I—I—I kind of liked the engineers. They’re highly efficient. And I worked with some of them up there in Washington, you know. That was what they called a inter-agency task force. There were people from the engineers from various branches of the agric—the Agriculture Department, particularly the salt conservation people, the Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the Interior Department, the—course, the Ge—the Geological Survey, as I said, they were the finest ones I worked with. They w—they were scientists. They weren’t promoting anything. They were try—trying to get stuff straight and you could go to them and find out what the flow of the Shenandoah was at such and such a—a mile up from Harper’s Ferry, you know, that kind of thing. And there were some others. As I say, I—I—I—I like the engineers. It’s just I don’t like what they stand for a lot of the time.
DT: What is it they stand for?
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JG: Well, they stand for construction at any cost, you know. That’s—that’s the way they make a living, maintain the agency.
DT: I understand that there was a dam that was proposed for a site not too far from here, up near Paluxy.
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JG: Yeah, that wasn’t—that, again, wasn’t federal. That was conceived locally and was going to be devoted mainly to furnishing water to Stephenville, few miles west of here, and I got into that squabble. We finally seem to have won.
DT: Can you talk about the process of fighting that proposal?
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JG: Yeah, well, the way in which we won really wasn’t all that glorious. We won because one of the state water commissioners—or whatever they’re called—a member of the—of the water board ou—as of that time got into some rather shady dealings with a lawyer from Stephenville guaranteeing his future in some way or the other, I don’t remember the details. But that went to the courts and it got so involved that they f—f—they failed just—Stephenville just finally backed out of the whole thing, and it—and—and the proposal died finally. But it—for a year—for two or three years there, at least, the citizens up here at—at Paluxy, Texas, which is a tiny town on the river—but those people—the families—some of the families have been there since the 1850’s and they were being inundated, and I just—I got in on that for that reason. I liked them better than I liked the other folks. But, as I say, I—we—we won, but, it was—it was because of that chicanery that we did. Course, the lawyer we had down in Austin is the one who turned it up. Stuart Henry, do you know him?
DT: Um hum.
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JG: Yeah.
DT: It seems that there were a number of dams, including Applewhite, and Little Cypress, and Bosque, and Rockland, and the Paluxy that were fought successfully in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, and all were defeated. I was wondering if you could say that that’s a good and final word on dams? Or, if you think they’ll come back once again?
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JG: As I say, I don’t think they ever go away. Yeah, I—they were—it—if—if it—there’s room for hope on—on this wholesale dam building thing—it’s already tapered off a lot because the Federals did back down and back off. And it, in fact, it was during our proposals that certain dams be destroyed, you know, the mostly old industrial dams on the east coast. They’ve already done a little bit of that. But it’s harder to settle a dam now. I mean, it’s just not automatically like mom and apple pie, you know. It’s—and a—a lot of the facts that have become obvious and—not only in terms of displacing people, but displacing wildlife and some of the richest country you have, which is river bottom, and that’s what gets covered up. But, as long as the population thinks it needs this much water as it is getting now, and as long as the population keeps increasing, that’s—and as long as they keep pulling out the underground water, reducing these aquifers, thig—this one right here is gone down—oh, let’s see, fifty—it’s probably down fifty feet from where it was when my well was drilled in 1960—’61 I guess. So those—the aquifers are in trouble and there’s no real attempt to econom—I mean, we’re using something like a thousand gallons a person a day, whereas, you know how little you can get along on, I do. And without even creating hardship, you could cut that in half or—or by three-quarter. It doesn’t look as if it’s in the books, though, any proposal of that sort bringing dismay from the city multitudes. And so it—there’s going to always be a danger of more dams, you know. Right now Dallas is trying to build one over in East Texas that
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has East Texas up in arms. Fort Worth might start looking out this way. One of the things that might save the Paluxy, for instance, is a—a very real doubt as to whether a lake on it would hold water. Because it’s connected through porous materials and cracks and so on with—with the aquifer underneath, which used to feed springs up through those places, but, since the aquifer has dropped, the springs have dried up, the Paluxy’s dry as a bone now. It never used to be that way. Worst draught couldn’t—couldn’t do it, you know. This creek of mine down here—the one you came across down there—it ran all the time—copiously—in the memory of people that I have known, and it ran most of the time copiously for the first ten or fifteen years that we had this place down here. So there are other things taking place than dams in terms of water. So there will be stimulus for dams from here on—danger of them or whatever you want to call it.
DT: Speaking of stimulus, could you talk about the—I think you called it the autocratic megalomania, this attitude about needing to make big plans and have big ambitions and promote growth?
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JG: That’s right—that’s…
DT: Is there a genetic quality that some of us have for that?
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JG: Yeah, we Americans seem to have it worse than most other nationalities but maybe that’s just because I know Americans better than other people. Yeah, w—we—we love big stuff and making things over in a big way and then raising our eyebrows when the result c—the results aren’t entirely what we wanted, you know. I—the country exists on such illusion, now as much or probably more than ever, all this information superhighway and all that stuff, it’s a bit megalo itself, I think.
DW: Something you said a little bit earlier before we started rolling about what you thought of the role of—I think David asked if it made a difference—anything that you had written, or what you thought that its effects were in making changes, and you seemed a little bit less than optimistic about the effect that a book or anything could have on changing, as we say, something about before it’s gotten out, it’s already time to change ahead or was behind the curve, but, if you’re writing in the late 1950’s, then, it’s sort of almost the same time as something like Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, a lot of people would have thought there’s a book that really did….
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JG: It did.
DW: …actually manage to change things. So, I wonder how you evaluate your role as a writer and the role of your books in fermenting activism and actually being able to accomplish something with the books that you wrote at the time akin to what she was accomplishing, or as sort of harbingers…
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JG: Yeah…
DW: …in the environmental consciousness movement.
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JG: That’s a hard one to answer because it—it involves one’s attitude towards one’s work. I have always—always been suspicious of polemics. I still think that they’re—now, I’m talking about writing as writing expression, not as propaganda or anything else. And, to the extent that ulterior—well, polemical intentions take over what you’re writing, despite how—how fine the expression may be and so on, they limit its—the duration of its appeal. I think Ra—Rachel Carson was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful person and she did have a huge effect, really did, almost single handed she got rid of the chlorinated hydrocarbons. But I don’t think many people read her for—for the expression involved any more because it was accomplished, you know, what she set out to do, and that’s wonderful, that’s great. It’s simply not my bag, in a way, you know. Now, I do have feelings about those things and they get into your writing inevitably, you know. But it’s like me saying I—I like the—the engineers a little bit ago, I can’t help that. I’m of two minds about them, you know? I know—I—I know they’re not—I disapprove of many of their projects but I find them good functional people and rather worth being around, you know, talking to. Does that make any sense?
DW: I get the idea behind that. Yeah, I think you’re right about Rachel Carson. As people read it today, not the way you read great literature but for what its role was in history at one time.
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JG: Yeah—yeah, it—it becomes dated. Now some of her other stuff like Under the Sea Wind and all that, is much more readable now than—than the angry stuff, you know, even though her anger—and, boy, I’m glad she had it, you know.
DT: What is the emotion that you put into your writing about the environment? It seems like there’s some gloom.
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JG: Yeah, there’s gloom. You don’t have to look very far to get gloomy about the environment these days. I mean, there are successes but a lot of them are just within this country, they never got as much going on elsewhere. And some of the bigger—the absolute biggest thing as far as I’m concerned is over-population. It’s—it’s—it’s the real ogre out there because it’s not only overpopulation but overpopulation by people who want to live the way the richest ones do, which is us. And if everybody in the world were living that way right now, there just wouldn’t be anything left. And maybe a lot of s—city area things to that. I—I mean, you know, the ozone layer and all that stuff, I believe, you know, that—there it is. And most of those things—if they can be dealt with at all will take half a century, century, century and a half, two centuries to do anything really important about it. So, yeah, I’m somewhat a pessimist. I do enjoy life though and I’m glad to be here, I’ll say that. I’m not a gloomy person.
DT: When you say you enjoy being here…
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JG: Anywhere.
DT: …well, I guess if to be sort of picky about it, we’re at your piece of land you call “Hard Scrabble”.
00:39:34 – 2107
JG: Yeah.
DT: And I was wondering if you might be able to tell us a little bit about why you chose to move here and buy this place and restore it? Learn about it?
00:39:47 – 2107
JG: Well, I always—probably indicated a while ago—I know I was—always been drawn towards the Texas hill country, you know, just limestone, and running water, and cedar, and live oaks, and so on. And at the time when I got ready to buy some land—it was after Goodbye to the River had come out and I had made a little bit of money off of it—my parents were still alive in Fort Worth and I didn’t want to get too far away from them. They were, you know, not in really good shape. So I bought this which is a kind of approximation of the hill country and—and its contours and vegetation and so on. And it’s—this land was also very, very cheap at that time. That’s—that about why—why, you know, I just always liked that limestone hill country. Now, as far as getting any use out of it’s concerned, I always knew that was an illusion but I had a lot of fun with it, you know, running cows, and building fences, and plowing the little fields and all that kind of thing. It paid—paid it’s taxes and a little more, and that was about it, you know.
DT: Have you seen a change over the years?
00:41:25 – 2107
JG: Well, it changed for the better for a long time after I first got hold of it. Had bulldozers in here and cleared out a lot of the cedar from places where it didn’t belong, you know, like good field land. It is going back to what it was now because, since I got rid of my livestock a few years ago, I—I haven’t—I decided I didn’t want to die from a heart attack while digging post holes so, I just kind of backed off from the things that would need to be done to keep it in halfway decent shape, you know. It’s a n—never ending task—the cedar, for instance, all that cedar you see down here, it’s—has come back in the last ten years. That had been cleared and I kept goats on it who ate the little root sprouts and so on. One of the big changes around here has been not my doing—or anybody’s doing that I know of—but it’s the loss of the live oaks those—that—do you know about that live oak disease?
DT: The decline or (?)…
00:42:36 – 2107
JG: Yeah, um hum. I had eleven big live oaks. You can see some of the stumps right along here. I didn’t want to bulldoze those stumps out because it would tear up this ledge. But they went clear on over there. Eleven big ones is why I built the house here. And they all died in the early 188—1980’s. Everything—all the oaks on—that we have—all the oaks of any size on this side of the creek died during that time and afterward.
DT: That change, you seem to think, wasn’t due to man’s work but I imagine that some of the harm to the land was due to the way it was used in the past. Can you clarify any of that?
00:43:26 – 2107
JG: Any—are you talking about the oaks?
DT: Well, no, how the…
00:43:30 – 2107
JG: Oh, yeah, well, it…
DT: …farmed or ranched?
00:43: 32– 2107
JG: Well the land was worn out a long time ago. Yeah, it—this old steep land where the soil is not too deep above the limestone and so on, if it was over grazed or over plowed and so on, it washed away and blew away. There was—there was a lot more soil here in the beginning because this was mostly rather rough but rolling tall grass prairie in here in the beginning. I talked to some old ladies who w — were — were — spent their childhood on the — another part of this place, over there across the creek. They were in their 90’s when I talked to them, I think, and they remembered going into Glen Rose with their father in the buggy over—didn’t pass through any cedar at all, just over the hills, you know. Cedar was in the ravines and so on and natural prairie fires tended to control it—controlled it, you know, if it tried to get out from there. But it all changed, you know, and the—and then they did—they put too many cows in and they—this whole rocky hill behind the house up here was a cotton field at one time some old—an old time told me. You couldn’t plant weeds in it now. I mean, it’ll grow grass—some grass, but, no, no it—it has suffered terribly. I—y—y—you—it’s kind of like Greece, you know? We think of Greece as austere and rocky and, you know, kind of barren. It was big forests and so on back in the early days and they—they laid it down and chopped it down and watched it wash away, you know, same thing.
DT: How do you think the subsistence farmers and ranchers that were here up through the ‘40’s and ‘50’s related to the land here and how they thought it was best to use it and what it meant to them?
00:45:55 – 2107
JG: Well, by that time—by the—I’d say by the f—‘30’s, they had given up trying to make much of a profit out of it. The ones who stayed on the land after that were just subsisting. I mean, they ran some hogs for winter meat, you know, and ran some cows, plowed the little fields for corn and stuff and maybe a little cotton for—to get a little cash to buy snuff with or something, you know. Before that, when there were really—1890’s, 19-teens up to the second—first World War I imagine, they were going full tilt, I—you know, there were fifteen cotton gins in this little county at one point. There was everything, everything you could sink a plow into was planted to cotton. That was the cash crop. And it did more damage even than the over grazing, I think. But everything entered into it. They—I—I was very fond of the—the old country people who were left. They were decent, honorable people. But, of course, they were part of the process that had played so much havoc with the land and they certainly had no conservationist ethic. They shot anything edible any—any time they saw it, any time of the year, you know. There were no wild turkeys around here at that time and they were very, very rare—you never saw any deer at all—and other things, you know, similarly.
DT: You’ve talked some in your books about not always, I think, speaking for yourself, but, I guess, speculating about people’s role in the environment and I think you refer to them as head varmints and…
00:48:13 – 2107
JG: I—I—I—I refer to myself as the head varmint of this place, yeah.
DT: What do you mean by that?
00:48:20 – 2107
JG: Well, I don’t know, I just liked it. I—I can’t—can’t answer that one.
DT: There was another comment I thought you made that rang true with me is that for some people there’s a kind of pride of destruction. I think the comment was when you’d seen a Bald Eagle fly over and you commented that one time you might have tried to shoot it but that, since then, you’d kind of reconsidered and thought that was kind of kid stuff.
00:49:00 – 2107
JG: Well that’s kid stuff. You know, kids are terribly destructive. If you—you get a gun in their hand, anything from a BB gun on up, they’re going to try to kill stuff with it. And, as a kid, I—I—I’m afraid that I’d have—who knows? I might have been impressed even then by it’s dignity and so on but there’s a good chance I’d have taken a shot at it.
DT: Well, do you think that’s an attitude that crops up in grown-ups as well?
00:49:33 – 2107
JG: It lingers in—in many grown-ups, yes—yeah. All these varmint hunters and Prairie Dog exploders and—and so on, yeah.
DT: It seems that you took a different route with this place and did some work to try and restore this place to what it might have been in years past. Can you tell about some of the work you did in that respect?
00:50:02 – 2107
JG: Well, yes, it—that was a part of my original idea. You—there’s a point though at which you come to the realization that all you can do is make it a little better than it was when you got it. You can’t bring it back to what it was because too much damage was done and it’s permanent damage, you know, in so far as human time goes. I’ve sometimes thought this—I don’t know how you looked at it but this—the other side, behind the house, which, as I say, was once a cotton field, it’s all just rocks strewn now, you know, above kind of gravelly hard stuff. I’ve sometimes thought if I could stand up there on that thing and, say, okay it’s a hundred and fifty years ago, I’d be up to here in dirt. But you don’t get that back, you know, it doesn’t coming back. So you realize—I come to realize that and you slack off a little bit in your idealism about the land but places where land can really be reconstituted are usually relatively level, no river bottoms and—and flat plains and prairies where the washing hasn’t been so bad, stuff like the Midwest and—and the Mississippi valley and—and that sort of thing. But in this steep stuff it—the destruction was fairly complete. It has its own charm, too.
DT: Perhaps you can read a passage from your book, Hard Scrabble, it talks about…
DT: Let’s start and maybe you could read a passage from Hard Scrabble.
00:52:10 – 2107
JG: Okay, this is the c…
DT: (?)
00:52:12 – 107
JG: …the—the concluding paragraphs actually in this book, ha (TAPE CUTS OUT) which is my account of my years of—earlier years of effort on this place. Now I think it demonstrates, you know, got off into the polemics and so on and my pessimism and all that, it—I’ll read it. It has wrapped up in it my attitude toward those things I believe.
“You have the power to make a choice or, at least, from long habit, you think you do. And when the time comes to choose the land, you choose, against all good sense, a patch of rocky, rough cedar hills with a few tired little fields and pretty water flowing past over ledge limestone. In the short disastrous backwater history of its use by men of your own race, its swift decline into—from primal richness, you come to see if there is a summary of the relationship between men and land on all parts of this planet in the ages succeeding a golden age of harmony between men and the natural order that man may not have ever been anywhere. Because there is in you a need to know certain things, the why the—though why the need is there, you do not at first discern. You undertake this bit of land’s uneconomic restoration to what you hope is gentler human use, with no certainty at all that those who come after you will be gentle with it too, or that in long time what you do here will matter a mote for good or bad. These being needful illusions as is land ownership itself, existing only in your head. Yet, out of the work and the illusions come, in time, some scraps of understanding, tardy and incomplete perhaps, but there were other things to do before and maybe, for that matter, it was only in our ti—only now time to learn about scrub brush and rhizobia and goat bleats and all those other things. And through that understanding comes abruptly and at long last a glimpse of old reality, indestructible, hiding among the creatures, wild and tame, in the stones and the plants, and in the teeming dirt. Without having known fully till now that it was what you sought, you see it there as clearly as does any battered ancient pensioner who leans on a hoe and picks his nose beyond the fringes of suburbia, contemplating the rituals of Bantam Hens—Bantam Hens that are not even all the same color, uncontemporary, at one with vanished medieval peasants in his fundamental thrusts and rhythms, at one with Sumerian farmers working in fields beside the tigret—Tigress and hearing from afar the clash and clang of mad kings murdering one another. You see it and it sees you. Old reality survives blinking at you there, lizard eyed, survives and will prevail. That is perhaps enough to do, yes.”
DT: Thank you very much.
00:56:07 – 2107
JG: That does wrap it up doesn’t it?
DT: Yes sir.
00:56:08 – 2107
JG: Okay.
End of reel 2107.
End of interview with John Graves.