INTERVIEWEE: Pete Gunter (PG)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT)
DATE: January 18, 1998
LOCATION: Denton, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Karen Brewer and Robin Johnson
Note: Numbers indicate the tape counter (divide by 11.6 to give the rough minute number) and reel numbers (“a” refers to side 1 of tape 1, “b” to side 2 of tape 2, etc.) on the analog audio tape copy of interview. “Misc.” refers to unrelated off-camera conversations and background noise.
DT: This is David Todd. It’s January 18th, 1998 and I’m lucky enough to be able to spend some time with Pete Gunter and talk to him about his many contributions to Texas conservation, both in the mental realm—environmental ethics, and in the realm of preserving many thousands of acres in east Texas. So I want to take this chance to thank you for your time.
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PG: Well you’re sure welcome to it.
DT: I’d like to get started by asking you some questions about your background, your education and upbringing. I was curious if you could tell me a little bit about your parents and any early friends who might have had an interest in conservation that they shared with you and encouraged in you.
PG: Well I think the biggest influence was my dad, who was a country boy from Sivells Bend Texas up on the Red River. From the time I was four years old, he would take me out to the river for two to four weeks a year and we would hunt and fish and talk. And he would sort of give me the—bit by bit—the whole history of the family and of that part of Texas and, which of course was surrounded on three sides by Indian territory, then Okla—now Oklahoma. And—and, there’s a lot you can learn about nature around a
campfire or running a trotline late at night. And I think the most important thing you learn is the love of it. Dad loved nature. And he instilled it in me more by example than by anything he said, he would never preach. And, of course, grandpa was a rancher before him, and grandpa would always talk about not over-grazing the land. And when we’d go out on the prairies to sane bait out of the pond, he’d always say stop. You know, we’ve done enough, leave some for seed. Between dad and my grandfather, you sort of get a sense of, well you—you depend upon the land and you really ought not to misuse it,
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but you ought to love it, and something should be left wild. And I think this was never spoken as a philosophy, but it was lived. And I think that had the biggest influence on me. Then, when we moved to Houston, we lived across the street from Memorial Park, which was then just raw piney woods. We had three loblolly pines in the yard. And I could get away from the canasta parties and all the things young people are supposed to do, and go over in those woods and just sort of run halfway wild. And that too, you
thought of nature as a kind of sanctuary from some of the things in—in modern life that aren’t exactly wonderful, or I didn’t think were wonderful, canasta clubs being one among them. So, I had an awful lot of nature growing up. And my parents—my mother too, though not quite as—as enthusiastically really felt that the world around us is—is pretty neat and you ought to relate to it. So this is just something that came to me through the—the back of my neck or the—up, I don’t know, the seat of your pants, whatever. It just was part of the air that you breathed.
DT: What was Memorial Park like in those days?
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PG: Well, it was loblolly pine and then various other trees. It was a pine forest. And then besides the fronting on Buffalo Bayou, there were several pretty good-sized creeks that went down to the bayou and those would flood. And then you’d find little catfish and minnows and water snakes and everything else washed up in your front yard. And of course, the omnipresent crawfish. So that there were plenty of ponds over there on the golf course and, just interesting stuff to explore. So I was lucky. I might have been socially more adept if I’d spent all my time trying to be socially adaptable, but I spent a good part of it out running along the edge of the creek to see what you could find down there.
DT: Did you have friends that you shared this with, or was it kind of a solo operation?
PG: No, it wasn’t all alone. We had several of us: Bob Meece is a friend of mine from Houston whose family lived out in the Big Thicket and we’d go out in the Big Thicket around Livingston when I was a kid. And that’s why I learned what the thicket is. And Bob and I used to run around the golf—the—the—well the golf course too, later, but the—the woods. And then a bunch of the kids from the neighborhood, Bunky and—and
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Henry Schmidt and I, just start naming them. And we would get over there and we’d—would run a communal trap line for a while. And we would pick blackberries and we would make hideaways, find old packing crates and set up various futile establishments out there in the woods. But mainly we just had a wonderfully good time, which is what I recommend. You want to teach kids about nature, you can preach a little if you want to, but the—the real lesson is to really enjoy it. And—and that’s, I think to me, it’s hard to explain to people and they don’t quite get where I’m coming from. But that’s one reason
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why I want to save areas of wilderness and open space, as much as for anything else, it’s for kids. It’s for kids. Let them run—get away, let them feel a sense of freedom. Let them learn to enjoy the land. Let them get to know some creek bed and what’s in it and when the things are there and what it’s like. And—and get a sense of how beautiful it is.
DT: You though it was a pretty friendly, fun place to be – not hostile?
PG: I never thought of it—I—let me put it this way, I never thought of it as hostile, but, there were water moccasins, there were coral snakes, there were various other things that you—if—if nature was a—a welcoming kind of place, there were also dangers, and you didn’t forget about those. That is you had to respect this—this place. And I think, you know up along the Red River, you—you could—the rivers were neat for swimming in,
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but my father would talk about rises when a two-foot wall of water would come down the river carrying dead cattle with it. So you had to think twice. And I think you get a balance of using your head that you can be—you can be hurt here. And also, this is great, it will sustain you. It’s a pretty common sense balance.
DT: Did you have any teachers or people you’d consider mentors who also encouraged your interest in conservation?
PG: You know, I really don’t think so. I don’t think any of them discouraged it. And I didn’t know I was going to be a conservationist either. But I think if—if it was anything, it was the people who introduced me to romantic poetry. I really got an overdose of that. Keats, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and then a host of smaller, less known poets, all the way up to Bob Dylan, which give you this response to nature as something you’re in. That is, my love of nature is—is pretty much a homegrown product with some
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infusion of—of the romantic poets and also composers. And, you know, Mark Twain, dad had me read Mark Twain. I read Mark Twain until I’d read everything of his that had been published. I ransacked the Houston public library to find everything by Mark Twain. Well Mark Twain gives you a sense of the enjoyment of nature and—and man having a place in it. So I guess you could include Mr. Clemens too. But, you know, there were all kinds of other things. I played basketball, and I worked at JC Penney’s,
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and I—heaven knows what all, you know, you were supposed to make a living. So it wasn’t just wandering around in the woods doing arabesques. There was work to be done and stuff that had to be—but when your work was over, there was a kind of freedom that—that I enjoyed. And, you know, get out late at night in the autumn when the—when the moon is out and all the dust on the paths through the wood are just silver and black, and just wander out there. Gorgeous, wonderful aesthetic that you develop from that. And I think—it’s a healthy thing, very healthy. And I think that it’s—it’s good for anybody at any age, but for young people, it’s better than the mall and it’s better than the—the TV, and it’s better than a lot of stuff. It’s better than gangs. It’s part of a healthy life, I think.
DT: You mentioned that you weren’t just doing arabesques that you were working too. Can you tell a little bit about your career to date, and how it may have overlapped with conservation?
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PG: Well, the first time I ever took a philosophy class at the University of Texas at Austin, I knew that I was home. Now my father had me working to become an engineer or a physicist, and I’d had all the math and all the mechanical drawing and all the physics and all the science courses that they had at the high school. And then I had a—kind of a revolt against it, but then I decided, well I’ll be lawyer. The first time I had a philosophy class, I knew that it was too late. That philosophy asked the questions, which for some
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reason, I had to try to answer. I think that though everybody, in some sense, is a philosopher, there’s only a few who—who are—have it so bad that they simply must do that. Now philosophy in the west hasn’t always dealt with nature, or it’s dealt with nature in a sort of second hand, offhand way, rather that making it central to—to our knowledge of what the world is and what we are. Plato thought that the world was a realm of shadows and Aristotle thought that it was a place of distinct substances and Aquinas thought it was a gateway to some other world beyond it. And, nonetheless, I had to do philosophy. And so—although I had three majors at the University of Texas, social
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sciences, literature and philosophy. But philosophy was the key and the thing I worked hardest on. So I was able to get a Marshall scholarship to Cambridge University and take philosophy in England, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, and then to go from Cambridge University to Yale University and get a PhD in philosophy. But if you had told me when I was sixteen that I was going to be a professional philosopher, I would have looked at you as if you had just been transformed into a meridian of longitude. I could—you know, me, what, what’s that? Funny what you find out about yourself. So
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I—I—but it took me a long time, and it’s still, to—to have philosophy and ecology come together, that took a long time for me to really see what some of the connections were, and I’m still working on that.
DT: Is it a new field, environmental ethics?
PG: Yes, it’s a new field. Arguably, it started in the 1970’s. And that’s when I started to write about ecology from a philosophical viewpoint—myself and many, many others. But it developed in the United States. It’s interesting in terms of the history of ideas, why it should have developed first here, then moved to other English-speaking countries, and is now beginning to make in-roads in the European continent and elsewhere. I think partly because the problems are becoming so evident and inescapable.
DT: What do you think led to its start here in the U.S.?
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PG: Well I think this sort of—sort of sense that this is wrong what we’re doing to nature. This is wrong, we shouldn’t be doing this. This is not only wrong it’s—it’s crazy. Why haven’t we thought about this? Why didn’t anybody warn us about thing—you know, the hole in the ozone layer or global warming or, just the destruction of the east Texas forest or, the pollution of the Trinity River, or you name it. I mean there’s all kinds of things to name. The—the mushrooming world population, which is such a problem. And I think it was that sense that industry and so forth wasn’t taking us to some glorious utopia but was taking us to a dis-topia, a world where people would have to fight for—for their water and their air, and—and what was the point of that? So, and of course, this was accompanied by a general awakening in the country. I was certainly not—not—not alone and not original. What was different was that I was ensconced in
this discipline called philosophy. And so I begun more and more making connections between philosophy and ecology. Well, the kind of philosophy I had studied, which is called process or process relational philosophy and is associated with names like Alfred North Whitehead and Henri Bergson and Samuel Alexander and Charles Hartshorne. That kind of philosophy is ideally suited as a context within which it becomes easy to think about environmental issues, including the ethical ones, the value issues. So that it
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turned out that the kind of philosophy I was studying related intrinsically and—and rather easily to environmental problems that I was worried about. But I as say, Hegel said that the owl of Minerva only takes flight at dusk. Meaning after the events have gone along, then you start to realize wh—what they might mean to you. And, so I’ve—we have a department here of en—environmental ethics, a graduate program, a master’s degree. And then I was involved in—in setting it up and bringing in some—but I’m not the only one. Maxell Oelschlaeger another departmental member worked on it. And—and—but it’s a unique program, there aren’t very many in the world. There’s some in England now
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and some in Australia, one other in the United States, and other similar programs beginning to come into existence, but I think way late. Should have come into existence in the 1920’s and saved us a lot of grief, but they’re not doing it. So we’re trying to pioneer, if that’s the right word, something called environmental ethics, which is perhaps not the right name for it. Some people call it eco-philosophy or philosophy of the environment or environmental philosophy. I don’t know what the right name should be.
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But it’s simply reflecting in a broad, and I hope a deep way, about how man relates to nature.
DT: What’s been the reaction of your philosophy colleagues to your work?
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PG: Well it depends on the colleagues. Most of English-speaking philosophy has dealt not with nature but with the ways that human beings use language. And many philosophers now are skeptical that there is anything out there beyond our linguistic usages. Whereas I think language is just something that involves in nature along with everything else. I take the common sense viewpoint, but philosophy isn’t always common sense as—as you might know if you’ve ever had any of this stuff. So, I think
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we are treated by—by probably the majority of English-speaking philosophers, if they should notice it, as sort of some kind of secondary concern and not interesting. And some of them look on it with contempt because they think we’re out there doing arabesques and fluttering around amidst the butterflies when we should be finding a comma blunder in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. If you get a note of irritation from me, it is exactly that, irritation. So we haven’t done real well in terms of the acceptance of this by—by philosophy in general. But there are enough people who think it makes sense to where there’s a journal here that we put out, Environmental Ethics, and now more journals like it are coming out around the world. So, I think it’s a—I think it’s something
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that’s going to be more and more done because the problem’s become more and more inescapable and finally you have to ask a philosopher some time, what’s—what’s the bottom line, or what’s—William James called it the cash value of what you do? What do I get for all of this? And I don’t know. Ere, you get a good deal more talk, terribly intelligent talk. But—but you’re doing the wrong sort of talk, and I’m afraid you’re confused, a pity. What is the bottom line of doing philosophy? And surely it must come down to nuts and bolts someday. Well that’s not popular among philosophers. Among most human beings, it sounds all right, but not among the philosophers.
DT: Can you also talk a little bit about the reaction to people who’ve thought about environmental problems and the sort of reception that Texas has often given them? You’ve talked a little bit about an anti-intellectual bias and a hostility to these issues. Can you talk about that a little bit?
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PG: Well depends what—who has the bias against what. Lot’s of biases. You and I have some, no doubt. If it’s a bias against environmentalism, I think there’s a series of factors, including some of the things that environmentalists have said and done, series of factors that have—that have created this. One is ignorance. Just hard down dog ignorance. People don’t know, they don’t want to know. They don’t want to hear and they don’t want to listen. And our schools, until recently and probably still don’t do a very good job of teaching this either. That they don’t—a student can get out of even
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college and not know what population problems are and how they affect social structures, and how—and how they are related to economies. If you don’t understand population problems, you don’t understand a lot about, for example, what’s happening in Mexico and Central America generally. You just don’t understand. Okay. The same with India, same with Egypt, same ba—wi—with a lot of places. So I don’t think the school systems have done a very good job. They need to teach environment in some way that’s interesting and that relates to actual problems. And that’s been very slow to happen and the legislature has been very slow to mandate it. Second, Texas has been a frontier state.
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My grandfather, and I’m not that old, my grandfather remembered very clearly Comanche raids and Kiowa raids on their house, which is surround—up on the Red River here, surrounded by a log stockade, and his—his sister remembered it. And they would sit there and talk about what an Indian raid was like and what the last cattle drives up the Chisholm Trail, ’cause the Chisholm Trail east fork came up through their ranch. And grandpa had—when he was a boy, would take out dinner and breakfast to Frank and Jesse James that were hiding out on the place. It’s not that long ago in terms just of
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numbers of years. Moreover, the Texas land frontier really lasted, I knew people who—who—who—who opened up farms in land that had never been plowed near Houston in the 1920’s. So the Texas land frontier lasted from, well let’s say, from the—when the first Europe—Northern European settlers arrived in 1820 till almost 1920, that’s a hundred year land frontier. And then, besides that, there was an oil frontier that started in
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1900 at Spindletop and went on through the 19—up to the 1970’s. And I can remember when I was a kid in Houston going with my father downtown to a—a barbershop under the Mellie Esperson building, and hearing these guys come in and waving these big checks that they had just borrowed $75,000 from a banker to go buy some oil rights or to get some drilling started. That was like a—a frontier town. Money everywhere. And people becoming rich and going broke and chaos. So that we had, after the land frontier, an oil frontier, which was also a timber frontier, which was also an irrigated agriculture frontier.
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Texas has had one hundred and fifty years of frontier, first a land frontier, then a raw materials frontier. Similar frontier. You go get stuff and appropriate it and sell it, maybe you can do something to, you know, to—you refine it, or then you sell it. So, I mean, the whole attitude is an environmentalist is trying to keep me from developing my property. He is standing in the way of progress. What bad people environmentalists are. So the answer very simply—first is problems, we haven’t done a good job educating, but the second is, when—we, and like Oklahoma, have been a frontier for so darn long that it just seems wrong to say, we’re living on a ri—limited resources, we’ve got to be careful, we
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even have to go through some aggravation to try to save them. But if you don’t save the ecology, you gonna have a mess with the economy. And that’s another lesson that needs to be learned. That is, economics and ecology need to be brought together. They haven’t been even in universities. And I’m not saying that we have to throw away all our economic preconceptions, but we got to rethink them. What really is the cost of air
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pollution? Who pays for it? If it hurts the paint job on my car and I have to get a new paint job, I’m paying for it and in a sense, subsidizing somebody who’s polluting. And the—you go through the whole economy, anyplace you put your finger down on the yellow pages, there are these problems that come out of the kind of technology and population we have and the uses we make of them. Texas uses more energy than Italy, uses more energy than Great Britain or the United Kingdom, but we have less than one third as many people as they do. Which means what? That we’re using up energy like it’s going out of style. That’s very expensive. So we have to get that economic fact
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together with the environmental facts, and I believe that I’m just speaking common sense. But there will be many of the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world say, no, you’re a crypto communist and an enemy of goodness, we’ll get you. Well, what are you gonna do with this world? The problems aren’t going to go away. I didn’t cause them. Just because I quit reminding you of them, they’re not gonna go away, you’re gonna have to face them.
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Texas is no longer a frontier in—in the sense of land or raw materials. We’re gonna have to live by our brains. When I think of that phrase, I weep. Texas living by its brains, sounds kind of like a nightmare. Texas is eight hundred miles lo—lo—tall, seven hundred and forty miles wide, and one inch deep.
DT: Well, let’s talk a little bit about the depths of a place you cared deeply about, the Big Thicket and some of these things that we are losing because of, I guess, ignorance or a frontier mentality. Can you quickly describe what makes the Big Thicket so biologically valuable and significant?
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PG: Well in the first place, the Big Thicket is a—is an area down in southeast Texas of, I don’t know, two million acres let’s say. It depends on how you want to define it because it’s not a geographical feature like a rock or a mesa or—it’s a biological fi—structure and therefore its boundaries are—are more diffuse and harder to define. And before it wasn’t something that people—environmentalists worried about, it was a place of legends. That is, up to the 1950’s when a prisoner could escape from the state prison at Huntsville, they would head for the Big Thicket. Why? There’s just so much, just raw timber out there, and not many people. And bayous and seeps and swamps, and heaven
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knows what so that you—you could escape. During the Civil War, a lot of east Texas people hid out in the Big Thicket. It was known throughout the armies in the American southwest, that if you could get to the Big Thicket, if you deserted any army, but it would be particularly the Confederate Army, that you could hide out in the Big Thicket. And as late as the first and the second World Wars, people hid out there and there were reputations of outlaws and so—the old Southerners said you could find anything in there form a cricket to an elephant. So you’d find panthers and bears and ocelots and eagles and alligators and—and this immense, roaring wilderness out there. And it went from the interstate at Conroe, just south of Conroe, all the way east, but with some open spaces, all the way east to the Sabine River at Louisiana. And then everything south—a lot that’s
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south of Highway 190 and north of Highway 90, if you know those roads, was sort of lumped together as the Big Thicket. And the reason that people like—there was a Big Thicket movement in the 1930’s, which died out in the second world war, but the one that I was involved with started in 1964 and it was a race with a new technology called clearcutting. Lumber companies like to call this even aged management. They will hire somebody to make it sound good. Clear cutting means stripping out the old forest and planting only one species, rows of pine trees like corn stalks. And then anything that you couldn’t sell, you’d pile up and burn and then—then bulldoze into the creeks. The end—end result of hundreds of thousands of acres of clearcutting was that the area was losing
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any biological definition whatsoever. It was going to be simply destroyed. And I have talked to lumberman, who’d say, oh we can’t do that, we can’t possibly have done that. But I’ve seen clearcuts twenty miles, you know, let’s say from one horizon to another, what would that be? Ten miles long and eight miles wide. That is a hell of a big gash in the surface of the earth. And then you fly over it with helicopters and they’re cutting all the trees down to the creek and then pushing everything in the creek including the pine
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bark and saw dust and tree limbs and anything else. So you ruin into the streams, you ruin the creeks, you—you destroy the biological integrity. So we were in this, seemed to us, a race to the—to the finish to try head off the lumber companies. And we—it was just a miracle that we did it because I don’t think Texas really is—it was hard to get anybody to care in this state, not impossible. And the Texas Federated Women’s Club and the
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Sportsmen group from Houston and other groups of people really did help. But—but even they, the Texas Federated Women’s Clubs back in the sixties had like fifty-five, sixty thousand members. Thank heavens they did. Because when those ladies got mad and start writing, they can really rattle the cages of a lot of politicians. But in 1974 in October, we finally got a Big Thicket National Biological Preserve signed into law, and it had taken everything from, I don’t know how many speeches, I don’t know how many interviews on television, I don’t know how many journalists, I don’t know—I wrote a
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book, I wrote songs, I wrote articles, I wrote book reviews. And a lot of other people—I—please understand that Pete Gunter didn’t save the Big Thicket. It was Pete Gunter plus Bob Eckhardt, plus Ralph Yarborough, plus Maxine Johnston, plus Lance Rosier, plus Alan Steelman, plus all kinds of people, even John Tower. A lot of people but still it was tough to do anything environmental in the state of Texas. And the lumber companies have a very good PR people and—and I would make a speech, or somebody at Geraldine Watson would make a speech, and then here would come the lumber company flack men to talk to the same people the week after and convince them that we didn’t know what we
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were talking about. And all we had was nuisance power. And they had a pretty well oiled PR machine. So we really—we felt like we had to shout so loud because if we didn’t, we didn’t even screech sometimes, we just would not be heard. So it was an almost unbelievable campaign. And—and remember, I’m back here at the university trying to make sure I didn’t miss any of my classes. I wanted to teach every class. I had
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to do publishing in philosophy per se, in order to do my job and keep it. And I had obligations here, committee meetings. It was rough on your health. It was tough, and I do not know how many speeches I made or how many reporters I talked to. I saved about—the—the data on two or three hundred speeches of stuff, but I really don’t know. It’s—it’s—and—and there were many others who were doing the same thing. So we got a Big Thicket National Biological Preserve, but it was much smaller than we wanted or felt that we—we needed. It was a catalog of different ecologies. One would be a loblolly
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pine forest, another would be what’s called a baygall, which is a kind of swamp, another would be a long leaf pine savanna, another would be a beech forest.
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And then we had some string corridors to connect these together, not too long ago, three years ago. And with the help of Congressman Charles Wilson, whose district this was in, who fought us, but probably in the end was the best friend that the conservationists had, was Timber Charlie as we called him. Bless his heart. And he managed to give us a—a
fifty-five mile creek corridor plus another unit. So the Big Thicket National Preserve is up around a hundred thousand acres now. Plus there are two state parks in the area, plus there’s a National Wildlife Refuge, plus there are some—some donations by Temple Inland, the largest lumber company in east Texas of about, I think, twenty-eight, maybe three thousand acres now. Another area called the arid pine—Arid Sand Lands, quite a different ecology. Very dry because there’s nothing there but sand and all the rain goes right down through it. And you got cactus and west Texas wildflowers, mesquite trees
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and all this in the middle of swamps and alligators. So, we managed to—to piece together a great deal of land and now the lumber companies are beginning to repent of some of their clearcutting practices and starting to leave the hardwoods growing in the bottomlands. Temple Inland is going to use a forty to fifty year cycles. And in forty to fifty years with fifty to sixty inches of rain a year and good soils, you can develop a very mature hardwood forest in the bottom lands, which the hunters of east Texas ought to
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thank heaven for if they’re gonna do any hunting anymore. So, we managed to buy just—a bunch of amateurs, do the best we could, and making mistakes. Managed to put together, in an area around I don’t know, roughly the size of Connecticut, the possibility of saving the environmental and ecological and biological integrity of that whole region. And if I do say so, since I didn’t—can’t claim to have done it by myself, this is a ma—massive accomplishment, but no one cares. People just don’t care. It’s football. It’s—it’s sports, it’s sports arenas, it’s car washes and malls, it’s sex and sleazy stuff, it’s
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money. It’s everything else. I can’t even get anybody to be interested.
DT: Well can you…
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PG: Well having done it, I’m willing to live with it, but it does—it’s sort of puzzling, say look, look at this. And the answer is, I don’t know what the answer is. You ain’t making no money are you? You know, I say well no. Well than something wrong with you. Anyhow…
DT: Can you explain, to people who aren’t aware, why the Big Thicket is so special? I mean, I think you called it a biological crossroads, can you explain what you mean by that and why it is?
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PG: First let’s talk just about the crossroads. You have species there that are northern, the maples and the beech, for example. You have species that are tropical. There are molds, mushrooms there. There’s only—other known existence is in the highlands of New Guinea and in the Virgin Islands down in the Caribbean, in the Big Thicket. But you also have western species like the roadrunner. You have many western species of wildflowers that were not known to exist in east Texas. And you have a lot of stuff that belongs to the Deep South. So you get all kinds of orchids and all kinds of plants and
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trees that are deep southern in their character. And in the midst of this, there’s three or four different kinds of prairies. So you get this wonderful blending of eastern dry country and southern temperate, semi-tropics, northern stuff that comes down and then tropical stuff that comes up from the Gulf. And it all meets in one place. It’s probably the only place in the United States where that much diversity comes together. For example, you—birders know that there’s an eastern flyway and a western flyway for migrating species in the United States. In the Big Thicket you find both. I once was in the Big Thicket with a
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Cornell University biologist named—well-known guy named Tom Eisner, and he said, look at this. I couldn’t se—I didn’t know, ignorant, I didn’t know. He said, on this little hillside, I can—I can do research on this species of—of—of moth that’s—that’s really based in Arizona and this other species of moth that really is found in Mississippi, but here they are both flying around here. And it’s that kind of—of a regional diversity. Now there are other biological crossroads in the United States, but I think this is the most crossed crossroads. And then the old settlers say, you can find anything in there from a
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cricket to a elephant, well of course they were right. Well then, what—what do you find? And then in this crossroad, there’s this incredible abundance of different sorts of species and nobody really knows how many. That’s why the United Nations had made—has made the Big Thicket into an international man and the biosphere reserve. Because they’re in a relatively small area, you have so many different kinds of species coexisting.
DT: Do you think it’s an interaction of climate or is it placement of soils, or…
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PG: I think probably—well, climate and the proximity of the Gulf of Mexico. That is, you get a tremendous amount of rain, but the climate, because the Gulf tends to moderate your climate, doesn’t go to the kind of extremes that you have here where I’ve seen it at five below zero and I’ve seen it at a hundred and sixteen degrees in north Texas. It’s just not gonna do that down there in the Thicket. So it’s a—it’s a—a bit protected by the climate. And then of course there’s so much moisture that although it dries out in the summer, you rarely have a bad drought. Whereas, my grand—my grandfather, to
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continue speaking in the terms that I am, talked about the times the Red River would go dry and he would have to bring the cattle down to drink at the little water holes that were still left. And he would go burn the—the—the spears off the prickly pear cactus so the cattle would have something to eat. It’s just not gonna have that kind of drought down there. It’s going to rain. The Gulf is too close. It’s too easy to get the moisture in. And then you get—it’s—it’s warm most of the year. Up through November, you still got all
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kinds of flowers blooming. And then from March on, you’ve got all kinds of flowers blooming. And speaking of flowers, you estimate that there are at least a thousand kinds of—of flowering plants in that region. That’s a lot of kinds of flowering plants. And some of them are rare. Recently discovered was something called the Shadow Witch
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Orchid, which is in one of the new state parks. And it was only seen once before in Texas and was thought to be extinct here. Another one, the Crested Coral Root Orchid was discovered in one of the units of the Big Thicket Preserve in 1983, I think. Beautiful little orchid, but not known to exist in Texas previously. So when I started working on the Big Thicket, we’d say, well there are thirty species of orchids there. Well now we’re sure there are thirty-two and we think there’s several more. For example, the southern most unit of the Big Thicket Preserve is the swampiest and the warmest and the wettest.
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And it’s right where the Pine Island Bayou runs into the Neches, and people have seen tree-growing orchids up in the tops of the big cypress trees there. But how do you get up a cypress tree with an eight-foot thick trunk? I mean how do you get up there to find out? So there’s lots of—of things still to be found in the Thicket. And the people who study the molds and the fungi, are always sending me their papers on new fo—fungi, new molds. And this is interesting per se, it’s interesting per se. But what—anyone of these
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might turn out to have a medicinal use, you just can’t say. But you don’t want to kill them off before you find out what they can do for you. This is true of molds and fungi and it’s true with all sorts of plants and it’s true of—we got four of the countries five kinds of insect eating plants down there. We’ve got a hundred species of over story trees, and two hundred species of undered—under story trees and three hundred and fifty species of birds and some of those ra—birds are rare or scarce. And—and various—various amphibians that are rare or scarce and it’s the last place where you could have
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bears in east Texas, and panthers, and timber wolves. You could in—reintroduce them there and people sometimes see bears and panthers in the Big Thicket, particularly panthers. In other words, it’s a last sort of bastion of—of wilderness that can be saved and yet I’m now convinced you can do it without—without trying to run the lumber companies out of east Texas. That is, ecology and economics could be brought together so that Texas would have a live, vibrant, interesting place for people from Houston and Beaumont and Dallas to go, enjoy it, get the kids out in the wild, and yet still have a—a—a viable economy in those—that part of the state in terms of the lumbering that goes
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on. And to me this is a great discovery. And I didn’t make it; grant you, you learn a lot from books. But, this is something that I’ve learned, if I’m right, by long experience and meeting people and getting cussed and getting criticized and I don’t—getting scared out of the county. But—but you begin to pick up a picture of things such that ecology and economics could get together and then you could save all these species, thirty species of ferns, really more than that now, we keep finding them. All sorts of stuff.
DT: Can you talk a little bit about the timber industry and maybe some of the roots and some of the selective management that was done and then the even-aged and how things have progressed into where you think it might be more sustainable?
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PG: Well, you’ve had two big eras of timbering in the Big Thicket. Two big eras and then maybe we’re entering on a third in which things will be different, I—I don’t know. We’ll see if that’s true. The first one started in the 1870’s, the Big—Texas had only one railroad prior to the Civil War, the East Texas Railroad. During the war, it was—the who—the rails were torn up and used by the confederacy and the—as scrap. Maybe they were made into mini balls, I don’t know. So the only timbering that was done was near the rivers when you would cut down timber and float it down, say the Neches or the Trinity Rivers to sawmills down at Beaumont or—or who knows where, Dayton or
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Liberty or somewhere. That was des—desultory, I mean you would do a little and you’d let go, and you’d do a little, anyhow. Not until the 1870’s was Tex—was—was southern timber really, suddenly really conceived to be a great national resource. And so you have massive capital coming in to support timbering on an unheard of scale. And this was done with railroads. You would put in a—find a regular say Santa Fe, and then you’d build a lumber railroad off of that, and then you’d build trunk lines off of that. And you’d go out and cut all the timber around the trunk line, and then you’d put out another
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one, you’d cut all the timber there. And finally, when all the timber was gone and there was nothing left, then you’d take up all the tracks, go somewhere else, put out a contract, but the land, do whatever you had to do legally and illegally, and then put out more railroad line and then cut everything and then leave. It was a cut and get out policy. You harvested timber the way you mined coal. So by the 1930’s, not just the Big Thicket was cut over, but there was a forest of stumps all the way from the piney woods of Texas to Savannah, Georgia. The whole South had been cut over and nobody had replanted
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anything. And—and if you’d talked to them about replanting, you’d probably got punched out for your efforts. This is something lumber companies—they said, ah ha ha ha, although there were some things they really shouldn’t have cut. No, they should have done it in a different way. But if you go from the first cutting in the 1850’s till up through about 1940 when the last virgin timber was cut, that’s a long time. Some areas never did get cut cause they were too swampy to get into. And other areas had grown back to a facsimile of the original forest. So there was still forest there. Well the
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lumber companies would say—we’ve—there is no virgin forest. It’s all a cut over forest and said, yes—yes sir. We’re not interested in virginity here, we’re interested in character. And they didn’t like that very much. But then you had the second big timber boom which started in the 1950’s and this was clearcutting, which I’ve already described as just slashing everything and putting only one species of tree in its place. Now, for various reasons, I think a medley of reasons, the lumber companies are beginning to
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repent of this wholesale horizon-to-horizon clearcutting that they’ve done so much of. For one thing, the hunters in east Texas are—are mad. Where are you going to hunt if there ain’t no trees? We say well, we plant pine trees, good. Biologist friend of mine once said, if there’s any birds in those pine plantations, they better carry a nap sack, cause there ain’t nothing in there for them to eat. And what’s true of birds is true of possums, raccoons, squirrels, bobcats, whatever, mink, otter; I don’t care what it is. But the lumber companies now, I mean they’ve—we’ve had, what, almost a half of century of clear
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cutting, and they’re beginning, as Champion International is, to set aside what they call special places in the woods, usually along swamps and low lying creeks, that they still own but are not going to cut. And—and then this is also true of—of Temple Inland, which is the biggest of the lumber companies and Texas owned. The others are owned outside of the state. And then Louisiana Pacific, they’re starting not only to set aside special places, but also to—to—to have come to the conclusion that they want furniture-
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grade hardwoods. The—the clearcutting was done to plant pulp pine. It was used for what we call studs or two-by-fours that make housing and then pulp paper that makes your newspaper and your magazine or whatever else, your advertising flyer. Well, they cut wholesale and they sure destroyed a lot of stuff. They said, well we—the guys that have worked for them, you’d talk to them out in the field, well I know we’re destroying a lot of scenery, but we’ve got to do this, you know. Why do you have to do this? Well they had to do it to keep a job, I guess. But they had had a—I don’t know what they learned in lumber company schools except lumber company propaganda. Anyhow.
DT: So you think they may not be trying to Preserve and propagate these hard woods for fax paper, it may actually be for a high-dollar furniture.
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PG: Yeah, high—high-dollar furniture wood, that’s right.
DT: That’s interesting.
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PG: Well it is interesting and I think it’s wonderful, because it means they have an economic incentive to let the bottomlands grow. Well look, in east Texas, if you take a look at a topo map of southeast Texas, it’s nothing but stream corridors. You cannot tell a topo map of that part of Texas from a sort of microscopic view of capillaries, you know, blood vessels. There’s just streams everywhere. If on each of those streams some hardwoods are left and where the streams have a broad—a broad valley, you let the hardwoods grow out pretty far, then you’ve got all these corridors through which game and seeds and birds and everything can travel. And this tends to make an ecologically
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sustainable totality when you do that. So if you put the National Biological Preserve, the—the—the National Wildlife Refuge, the state parks, the corporate donations, the university owned properties and everything else that you have there, plus the lumber companies setting aside special places and saving the bottom land hardwoods, then instead of have every—having everything from interstate 45 to the Sabine River just leveled to the tune of we’re creating the South—South’s new forest, instead of having it all leveled, you have something like the ecology that you had there. And this is a much happier situation. But I must tell you that also, besides the lumber grade hardwoods, the pressure by the hunters on one side and the environmentalists on the other, has got lumber companies worried. So they want to do things that look good. And then the new
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people working out in the fields, the foresters now, are much better educated about ecology and I think that partly it’s what they want to do. They’d like to save a bottomland and feel good about it. So I think that the lumber companies are slowly and in part, changing their stripes. Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you can get private industry to protect the forests, then you don’t need a bureaucracy to do it, not a—not a public—a government bureaucracy. And I’m sure that’s not always true, but I’m—what we have now is a kind of mixed, but I’m much more hopeful than I was before.
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And I have written two books that state this but I don’t get any responses to it. Two books, I ain’t gonna write a third, but maybe I need to tap dance or something, I don’t know what. But it’s a very important thing that has happened in the piney woods. And of course, it hasn’t happened everywhere and it hasn’t happened to the degree that I would like it to, but some things are changing and there’s some hope of various kinds and—for example, Champion International has gone in with Texas Parks and Wildlife to
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preserve, to manage their bottomlands, with all those hardwoods, to keep the greatest diversity of species. If you had told me thirty years ago that this was going to happen, I—I don’t know, I might have laughed I guess. I just—it just wouldn’t have seemed even conceivable, but it’s happening.
DT: So they’re not just focusing on deer or red cockaded woodpeckers, but the whole thing.
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PG: The whole thing, the whole thing, which is of course what you should do since all these parts hold onto each other and like the termites holding hands to keep the old house up. All these parts of an ecosystem hold onto each other and keep the system functioning.
DT: I guess as much as corporations have been involved with using and conserving east Texas, there’s some individuals that have been pretty involved. I was curious if you could tell me about people like Lance Rosier and others who knew and loved the Thicket.
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PG: Well I think—I’m—you got me thinking of Arthur Temple, Sr. who is—has been the—very important in Temple Inland of course, his family—it’s a family-owned lumber company and the biggest land owner in east Texas, I think it’s now 1.8 million acres. After all, he’s a businessman, doesn’t agree with a lot that we said, but in the end, his—his influence had a lot toward—to do with the creation of the Big Thicket National Preserve, with ending all the arguments back and forth and getting something done. And it’s a very involved thing, but I—I must say that here is the—the—the image of a businessman who can take the long view. And that has had a big influence on me. But—but then to go back to Lance Rosier, Lance was a guy who probably, we—nobody knows for sure, maybe he got past the eighth grade, some people say only past the sixth. But he became very knowledgeable about the Big Thicket. His house became a little bitty white
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frame house off on the edge of Saratoga, Texas, which is a crossroads practically. But his house was a library. And when I first heard about the Big Thicket, I would go from—from where I was—where the heck was I then, I guess I was at Auburn University in Alabama teaching. And I would go from Auburn to Houston where my parents lived and stop by Saratoga to talk to Lance Rosier, and he would take me out in the Thicket and he would show me the crab spider and the golden spider and the resurrection fern and the this and the that and that kind of tree and this kind of tree and what kind of things there
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were in Pine Island Bayou. He gradually educated me, and not only about flora and fauna, but also about all of the medicinal uses of the things that came out of the Big Thicket. So, Lance, and he—he wasn’t trying to make big money out of it. I think he enjoyed the prestige that he gained from becoming Mr. Big Thicket. And there’s nothing he liked more than taking a bunch of ladies from the Junior League from Houston or from River Oaks out there into the wilderness and—and talk to them. And the—they were charmed by him. So, Lance, who died in 1973, if I—just before the—the National Preserve happened, did a lot to teach me what was there and to get us all interested in it.
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Remarkable guy. You just could hardly point out something that he couldn’t give you, first the common name, then the correct English name, and then the binomial Latin nomenclature, you know. That’s a, oh, pinus taeda, what’s that? That’s a loblolly pine. Oh, we used to have those in our backyard. And he says, yeah, well they’ll grow in water. So you’d get this whole—and then he’d tell you the kinds of destruction that
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he—he ad seen in his lifetime, when people would dive bomb a—a heron rookery with insecticides to kill them. There was a lot of destruction of nature to keep the environmentalists from getting anything. Old log cabins got burnt, heron rookeries got—huge old trees got killed, girdled, all kinds of bad stuff happened. And Lance would tell you about it. And then when he started getting publicity, then—for that region, then the real estate people would use it so they could set up subdivisions on the creeks, you know.
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It was a—you just—you just had to slog your way through the environmental politics the way you slog your way through a cypress swamp or a seep. And, you know, you’d say, well why didn’t you get up with a plan that was perfect from the beginning and then move from that rational construct, make up exactly what you should do? Oh get off it. You just did the best you could.
DT: Could you tell me a little bit about some of the other people that were involved and maybe some of the groups as well.
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PG: Well, I mean, there was this remarkable guy, Archer Fullingham, who edited the Kountze News and in the little town of Kountze in Hardin County in the Big Thicket., who was originally against the Big Thicket National Preserve, and finally became our local spokesman in favor of it. And here’s this guy, he was six foot four with a great big shock of white hair. In his later years he had eye problems and he wore a patch and he
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looked exactly like a pirate lost in the piney woods. All he needed was a hook on one hand. And he would cuss me out, and he would write—but he’d write editorials about you. Then he’d criticize you and then he’d come out on your side. You felt a little punch struck, but he was a wonderful, populist, old time, Southern newspaperman. And just to see that that kind of person could exist without Ivy League credentials, he was as good an environmentalist as you could ask for. And he did something. He talked to the local people. So Archer showed me what was possible. Then there’s Geraldine Watson, who
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was just some woman that grew up in the Big Thicket, eventually went to Lamar University in Beaumont and gut a—got a degree in biology. When the a—board of the Audubon Society visited the Big Thicket, we went with them. Geraldine could—could—even better than Lance, could reel off every darn species. This is a Smoke tree, this is a Fringe tree, this blooms on that day and that month. That blooms on this day in this month. This is a different kind of—of—of Dogwood. This is a Jack In The Pulpit. This is a—and you just can’t believe what she knew. And the—the Audubon Society people,
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who had some backgrounds, this is the best field ecologist we have ever seen in our experience. And Geraldine was doing what I was doing, going to anybody who would listen to you, anyplace where they’d go, pay for it yourself. And bless her heart; you really get to love people like that. And every one of these people that I mention, including yours truly, and warts and all, we got faults. And we’re not angels. But it was wonderful to see all these people doing everything they could think of to get people to
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listen, to get the attention of—of—of the media. And—and the thing I tried to do was get the Big Thicket argument out of those Big Thicket counties and out into a statewide and a national arena. That was my big task, was to be, well I don’t know what, a PR man for the Big Thicket, and any place I could find it, whether it was in Washington or whether it was in the Natural History magazine or Smithsonian, or whatever. And it took—it took a lot of doing, a lot of struggle. But there were lots of people struggling with us. Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas, the last of the old Southern populists along with Senator
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Gore of Tennessee. He really—he tried. He didn’t succeed, but he tried, and he encouraged me. When I was at graduate school at Yale, I wrote him in a—a letter about the Big Thicket, I said we’ve got to save this. He had just been in the Senate for a month. And so, he—he answered, he said yes, not only that, I have a chance to set aside two thousand acres in the Sam Houston National Forest of Big Thicket because of a new law that’s been passed and I’m setting aside a wilderness in the national forest. I’ve written the head of the National Forest Service and he wants to meet you and show you this and
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what do you think? And I was scared to death. Me, you know? Gonna meet these guys. Said, I can’t go, I can’t go. What I did was go try to get educated so I could at least talk intelligently because I had wandered around the Big Thicket as a kid and hunted and fished and lied and told stories and—and all manner of great stuff, but I didn’t know a sphagnum bog from a—from a tupelo swamp, from a cypress swamp, from a baygall, from a—a flat woods, from a, you know, you have to learn that stuff. And as well as you
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might know nature when you see it, you might not be able to put names to it. So Ralph Yarborough was a wonderful—not perfect, but wonderful influence. He was going to save that Big Thicket if it was the last thing he did. Now what he wanted it for is so that young men could go out there and hunt bears with a—with a knife or (?). I think I bypassed that treat. I don’t know how well I would do, my ancestors dealt with bears out in the American Wilderness, but I’ve never had to do that. Raccoon is enough I think. Bears, I’m not so sure I want to hunt bears. I have hunted alligators in—in Louisiana when I was a kid, but a twelve-foot alligator, I think we used to just let those go. We
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weren’t gonna go grab it and say, come with us. But Yar—Yarborough had the old Teddy Roosevelt notion of conservation. We’re gonna set aside something where young men can prove that they are men, you know. Okay, I’m a man. I don’t have to wrestle an alligator to prove it, do I? Anyhow…
End of Side 2 of tape 1, Reel 1016b.
Start of Side 1 of tape 2, Reel 1016c.
…all these people left me with a—such examples of people like myself, imperfect but willing to try in their different ways. Congressman Bob Eckhardt was another case in point. Very much an environmentalist. Helped us in a thousand ways and some people on his staff that helped us. And it even helped me to see Senator John Tower, the—the conservative Senator from Texas, who still, behind the scenes, tried to do something to help the Big Thicket, which meant that you—it wasn’t just liberal democrats that wanted
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to do something. And that’s a great lesson to learn. Congressman Alan Steelman of Dallas, very conservative republican, really helped us. So you got to see politics more realistically instead of in terms of just the labels. And that’s an education. It isn’t always the way it seems to be. Then there’s Alice Cashen and Maxine Johnston who lived together in Batson. Alice was a—a former high school teacher in Beaumont and had been Maxine Johnston’s teacher, and then they lived together there. And Mickey was the head of the libraries at Lamar University. Both very bright, very knowledgeable people,
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but both people from the rural South. I mean, these weren’t people with—with—like myself with quaint Ivy League degrees and stuff. They were just plain people, but very bright and very capable. And they would invite the congressmen and the senators and the national bureaucrats and the governors and the state representatives and the county commissioners, to their house and they’d have parties and they entertained. They would set up barbeques over at the Saratoga, at the Big Thicket museum. My goodness, we could have never done it without what they did. What I learned, again, was something a
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little more hopeful than you would think, is that capable but plain people, can do things in this world if they’re stubborn enough. It’s a great life if you don’t weaken. And it took us from 1964 to 1974 to get that Preserve done, and then another twenty years to enlarge it and to—and then you still have to protect it. So you end up, you know, you never know everything, but you get a better picture. My goodness, I’m a very different person than I would have been if this hadn’t happened, and I just stumbled into it by going to see Lance Rosier.
DT: Can you tell me a little bit about the efforts to manage it after it’s been set aside?
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PG: Okay, here’s another character, Billy Hallman of Dallas. The National Park Service, about the time the Preserve was started, people were beginning to talk about spending less money on government, and is a—not a bad idea if you do it right I guess. So, money dried up. So the Park Service didn’t have the money to map these different Preserves. They knew about where the Preserves were. So Billy Hallman went down from Dallas on his weekends and walked the borders of every unit and every stream corridor in that Preserve. Hundreds of miles. And he of course—Billy’s a good environmentalist, and he’d say, okay, the stream corridor is supposed to be we—that
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wide, but we’ll make it a little narrower here where it doesn’t matter, and then we’ll spread it out to take in an Oxbow Lake over here. And he literally, personally, mapped that Preserve for the National Parks Service and did it professionally enough where they could use his maps and his boundaries.
DT: This is in creating the original Preserve or in…
PG: This was in creating the original Preserve and marking out the exact boundaries. Now he’s not gotten much credit for that and I suppose nobody’s heard of him. But that’s an incredible thing to do. You can’t imagine. I mean, kicking off alligators with one foot and water moccasins with the other, people chasing you off their land and God knows what else. But he—he walked and decided where—and then the National Parks Service said, okay, this is good. You did a good job, we’ve checked it, we’ll just use you. They never paid him and he never asked. So you have to set up the boundaries, then you
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have to buy the land. That took court cases which continued up till 1990, or well no, that’s not—that’s a little more complex than that. Let’s say, to late 1985 or 1989. And then you had these ca—most of these cases where people would go to court and try to get more money. So you got a guy named Bill Jewell who was with the National Par—no with the US Corps of Engineers who went over and worked with the National Parks Service. Bill Jewell stuck with this one project. He’s still working on it, even after he’s retired, to make sure that the land did get paid for, that the title was solid, that the prices were reasonable, although people did—the lumber companies and most of the land was in
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lumber company ownership, and the private owners got a decent amount for their land. And some above—above—well above market price. So he just has bulldogged this and struggled and worked on it, but nobody’s ever heard of Bill Jewell. But he’s a jewel. And those of us who have worked on it have known—and in many cases you had people who owned land within the Preserve, but since they weren’t paid, they went to cut their timber and get their money off of it. So we had to head off the spite cutters and get the land paid for, which means you had to survey this before you surveyed that and get the lawyers to
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work on the title and get it all done, get this before the land was—was cut down. And then you had to decide, how is this land to be used? There’s some areas that are so fragile, some fern valleys for example, that nobody should—no hunter should go in there and—just keep people out, it’s too fragile. The orchids are fragile, the ferns are fragile, the insectivores are fragile, keep out. Other areas, it’s very hard to hurt. So, you’d say, okay, well this is open for almost anything. But you’d check and you’d say, are there any scar—rare, scarce or endangered fish? No. Okay, there’s some very interesting ones, the
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Pirate Perch and Gambusia, and various things, but they’re not—and so you can fish any of—any of these streams in the Big Thicket National Preserve. But you have to decide it. That is, you have to go through management plan after management plan of each corridor, each unit, you have to meet, you have to talk to people, you have to get the biological evidence, you have to have some sense for how people treat things. And then in areas where people are—local people are abusing the Preserve, build a nice picnic place with a good roof over it and benches and a barbeque pit. Pretty soon they quit
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abusing that area and start protecting it. In other words, you—you have as much human psychology to work with as you do about the Pirate Perch and the—and the God knows what Texas Trailing Phlox. So it’s a unending struggle—this thing is off to one side of me, can you see?
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PG: So, I mean we’re worried even till now, some people want to take Pine Island Bayou, ditch it, put in a bunch of retaining dams and destroy that whole area of the southern Big Thicket. And we’re having to fight a—a district and an election that was going to be held until the lumber companies came along and declared it to be—got the law declared unconstitutional. Now we don’t know what’s gonna happen next. So you don’t just walk away from something like this. You have to stick with it. And it’s a kind of shame, because I don’t get to go down to the Thicket anymore and just wander or—or
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float a canoe down the creek. I’m there with an election and politicians and bureaucrats and—it’s not at all what I wanted. But you have to get realistic finally. What can you do? What should you do? What would it cost? Does this hurt the local school Tex—local school district? Does it—does it take taxes out? Well what’s going to happen if this is bulldozed so that—boy, it’s amazing what you learn. But it’s been a—after I got out of Yale, I suppose I had a kind of education, but this is a second education and is a—it’s at least as good.
DT: I really appreciate what you said about its ecology and some of the politics and the management issues and I’m curious if you can visit some of the ethical issues that you’ve written about and spoken about? I read your book, Texas Land Ethics, enjoyed it and noted that you saw a need for an updated ethics and morality. And I was wondering if you could try and just briefly say what you meant by that. Why we need to change our…
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PG: Okay. Now I’m not gonna say that every society behaves ethically all the time, but every society has an ethics, a kind of morality which they try to figure out what are the principles behind it. And these differ from culture to culture and from time to time. Western ethics, starting with perhaps the Greeks, granted that the Greeks learned from the Egyptians and the Babylonians and who knows who else. Western ethics—when you start back in, I think Babylon—Babylonia, the first legal system that you had, developed by a famous man named Hammurabi, was probably developed to—to halt the blood feud between families. That these feuds were so ex—costly, that the siet—society finally settled down says, okay we’re gonna have laws according to which we can adjudicate. I
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don’t even know that laws always give justice, but they certainly are a means of conflict resolution. So we’re gonna have some conflict resolution. Here are the laws. Those laws, no doubt, protected property—family properties and family members and slaves weren’t taken into account. If you go up to the time which is not too far distant from this time in Babylonia, if you read the—Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus comes back from the wars, he finds a bunch of people have sat down in his property and are eating him out
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of house and home, trying to marry his wife, since it’s assumed that he’d died over there in the Trojan Wars. Odysseus comes in and he kills all these suitors. It’s a very bloody scene. If you complain about the violence on television, you should also complain about the violence in The Odyssey. And then those—those slave girls that he has who had—
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who had gone along with the people eating him out of house and home, he killed them, then the others he spared. Why? Slave girls were treated as property, not as people. Okay, you had the first legal system in the west probably because the blood feud was so expensive. You have the making of slave girls into people with the Judeo Christian revolution, which is a function of growing urbanization. You lived in societies which needed an ethic, which went beyond the old law of the—of the—of the claw, the lex talionis, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, you needed something that could
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allow men to live in societies better. Every time the human race—because of its development, because of its history, has run into a rock and a hard place, you’ve had to come up with new law and a new ethics. Now what’s happened? Well, since the Second World War, the number of human beings and the power of technology have outstripped the planet. We can no longer—we’ve come up with all kinds of dilemmas because the environment is finite and people want to be infinite. Simple as that. So you need an ethics that is extended—as Odysseus ethics got extended to include slave girls, but not
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until much later. So our I think needs to be extended to cover nature. We live in a community with nature, not just with other people. And this—we depend upon that community of nature as much as we depend upon the community of human beings around us. We depend upon both. Some environmentalists act as if they don’t like people, they wanted to save nature no matter who—what people gets hurt, I mean they have talked that way. I think it’s a very short-sighted way to talk for a number of reasons,
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but one is, nature is a community, people are a community. And they’ll say, what’s wrong, can’t they both exist? People are part of nature in some sense. So you need to extend your sense of your community, that to which you have obligations, beyond humanity to the loblolly pine forest, to the substructure of the hardwood forest, or to the cross timbers in north Texas, or to the Trinity River bottoms, or to the various migratory birds that come through here. In the Orient, at least on paper, this has already been done. And I’m not saying that to—in order to respect nature or included within your ethical
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purview, you have to become a Hindu. There’s a basis for this in western thought. But I am saying that we need—I think we need to enlarge our ethics. Well, it’s not new with me. Aldo Leopold, an American game manager and forester, wrote a book in the 1940’s called, Sand County Almanac, in which he tried to develop what he calls a land ethic. And there you try to save—you ha—you have an obligation to three things in the community around you, that he calls the land community. The—the integrity, the stability and the beauty of the land community. That you have an obligation, he thinks,
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to these because of—you’re in a community with them. Well, when my grandfather was thirty-two years old, there were one million people in Texas. I mean, you could do almost anything to nature without killing it. Now we have eighteen million people in Texas. In twenty years, we’ll have, who knows how many, twenty-eight million people in Texas, twenty-five million people in Texas. And everybody’s gonna want to have a—drive a single car and not use public transportation, and everybody’s gonna want to keep their
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motor running at the bank when they drive through, even though it’s a cool day and they’re not doing anything with the engine. And everybody thinks they have a right to water as much as they want on their lawn. And everybody thinks they have a right, well; if you think you have the right; just wait till the next real dry spell. Wait till the air pollution gets to where a lot of people can’t even stand to live in the cities. Just wait till there’s nothing but urb—raw, unplanned, urban sprawl from Dallas to Austin, and then tell me how much you like it. We can no longer live with the assumption that my
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grandfather’s generation could make about nature. You must take nature into account. Now old farmers and ranchers really did know that. Grandpa never over-grazed his land, even in the 1930’s dust bowl when a lot of people around him were grazing their land down to the bare dirt. A lot of people, not everybody, but a lot of people knew this. Now, we’ve come to the point where there’s a lot of things we’re going to have to do. So we need an ethic that makes sense out of this. And I think Aldo Leopold states this awfully well. We live in a community, other beings, and we need them, they need us, so
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let’s—let’s work together with them. And I can think of all kinds of projects in Texas, and not all of them require a terrible bureaucracy, or the evil feds, a lot we can do. And I’m mildly optimistic about it and I think it’s worth trying. And a lot of people can do it. I know a lady, mentioned in the book, (?) who owned a red house next to hers, it was falling down. They had it propped up, you know. Finally she said, okay, tear it down. I’m gonna make my next—this lot next to me into a bird sanctuary. She did it and now
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it’s part of the bird sanctuary, and—and her neighbors have the benefit of lots of birds. They said, I’ve never give a damn about a bird, okay, how do you like insects? Do you like lots of mosquitoes? Do you like lots of flies? Do you like lots of roaches? Did you know that birds eat those little insects? I don’t give a damn. Well, okay, Rush Limbaugh; strike on if you want to. But we’ve got a lot to gain from protecting—leaving open space and protecting streams and—and making places where you can take your
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family for God’s sake, besides the mall, besides places where your appetite is to buy more useless consumer goods, get whetted and driven to madness. Take the kids out and go fishing with them for God’s sakes. But you can’t do that unless there are places you can fish, and we are going to have a terrible time in Texas with the need for water and the pollution of so much. And I won’t go into the details, but they’re easy to go into.
DT: It seems interesting to me that a lot of these ethical issues often come down to personal attitudes and personal lifestyle choices and some of the very toughest personal decisions. I was wondering if you can…
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PG: You—that’s why you need an ethics and not just a legal system. It’s best if it’s internalized within individuals then you don’t have to pass as many laws. If you really feel that nature is valuable and you have an obligation not to misuse it, and a lot of people have that, then you may protect it without needing some federal bureaucrat to tell you not
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to do x, y, or z. And the more you can internalize these ethics, the less you need an external constraint. We’ll be much freer in the long run if we internalize this land ethic that I talked about, or something like it.
DT: Can you talk a little bit about some of these personal attitudes? You’ve been in the conservation field for a long time, and I’m wondering how you think times have changed since you became active in the, I guess in the 1960’s, mid 60’s.
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PG: Well, I don’t think there’s been any single, dramatic thing that’s happened. It—as it seems to me, it has been like a sea change. You didn’t realize the ideas were changing, and then you looked and you saw that they had been changing. That Champion International would manage its bottomland forests with Texas State Parks and Wildlife, that Temple Inland would go to Nature Conservancy for advice of how to manage its lands shows that, this isn’t the old, rough shod pioneer attitude, somebody woke up.
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Somebody became enlightened and I’m not going to take credit for it, well maybe as a minor irritant, but—I think that you—you get a better education in the broadest sense of a sense of the limitations of our—of our resources, and that starts—you never miss the water till the well runs dry. Well, start missing it before it runs dry and it might not run dry. I mean, there’s that attitude, that Nature Conservancy could go together with the lumber companies and Texas State Parks and Wildlife and try to restore what’s called the
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longleaf – bluestem range in east Texas, which is a large area which used to have the longleaf, or yellow pine, and this grows in sort of savannas with bluestem grass. It’s almost been eliminated from Texas, cause the yellow pine—it’s so easy to get into a savanna and cut. The yellow pine was the first harvested, and so to find sizable stands of—of fully developed longleaf pines, it’s quite difficult. But they’re thinking in regional terms now. And so, a lot of people, a lot of people have had to change their ideas for this to happen. You and I have a mutual friend who set aside her land, owns it, lives on it
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maybe, in the hill country, and talked her neighbors into setting up a thing that—that protects the whole canyon. And a—an area that feeds into a large creek. They’re doing this simply by using existing law and decreeing that these are wildlife refuges or environmental stream belts, or—or who knows. The different values, but you have the right if you own the land to say how it shall be used, in per—in perpe—in perpetuity, excuse me. I know a rancher up on the Red River that’s thinking about giving this university fourteen hundred acres and setting it aside as a—as a wildlife place and also a place where we can meet on—to have conferences. And he owns another fourteen
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hundred acres he might give us. And there are other ranchers who are enlightened and who I hope they keep their land, because I now think that private ownership, by and large, is the best way to preserve land. And they—but they can keep the land and give it to their descendants and still say, okay, but I want to set up some easements along the Red River, or along the creeks that you, in perpetuity, you can’t cut them down. And you
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got to try to preserve the beauty of this land and the integrity and the stability. Well if you could get people thinking that way, in a state like Texas where ninety-six percent of the land is privately owned, then all sorts of neat things can happen. And for that matter, all kinds of species can come back and—and—well it’ll be great for tourism, it’ll be good for cattle, it’s good for industry, it’s good for education, it’s just good.
DT: Well I gather you’re more of an optimist than a pessimist about…
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PG: Well, I—I’m very enthusiastic when I see something good that can be done. If I step back in a cool hour and consider the situation, I’m—I’m not that optimistic. But since it’s possible, aim at it, you know. You can sit back and whimper and—and slash your wrists and hissy all over yourself, and I know lots of intellectuals that do it. I—I agree with William James, look for some—some live options. Look for something with some cash value, get out there, don’t just give me linguistic usage, or some Gothic castle of Germanic despair. There are lots of things that can be done by individuals, and if we do them, the world will be better for our children and their children, so why not? If anything, it’s better than sitting around and whimpering.
DT: Well, speaking of children and people who are older than children, teaching at the University of North Texas, you have a chance to be with students a lot. I’m wondering what sort of advice you give.
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PG: The advice I give them is similar to the advice you just heard me expounding here. Damn it, you think you—you think—you can’t do anything and everybody says you can’t do anything, and that’s—that’s a big cop out. You can do something. I’ve done it. I’ve known a lot of people who’ve done it. Don’t just check out because it might require a little effort. I think young people now have a terrible time finding heroes or heroines, or finding any goal that’s worth it. Here’s one that’s worth it. Let me give you an example of a school over near Flower Mound, but it’s a blue-collar junior high school, and next to
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it was an area where cement products were dumped, refuse. And the cement company gave that land; maybe it’s a hundred acres, maybe seventy, to this little junior high school, which is as I say, a blue-collar school. This is working people’s children. And then there’s now a Texas Society for Ecological Restoration. And they got to work, I got contacted, and they’ve got the junior high school kids over there working on restoring that land. Now life is harsh and competitive, but there’s nothing that heals the human
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spirit, like healing some other human being or healing the land. And they’ve got those kids out there breaking up concrete blocks and trying to decide what the soil is and what you should grow here and how much mulch you need, and then how many seeds you need, and where these things will grow and what else should be here, and what used to be there. That is, it’s being used, not only to teach people how to heal—it sounds like I’m
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talking to a dog doesn’t it, heel. It’s not only teaching people how to heal the earth, but it’s teaching these students biology in a way that they’ll always remember. They’ll never forget it. And they’ll go back later and tell their grandchildren, look, this was a God-awful mess, and look what it is now, look what we did. That’s the way to educate. I know a junior high sch—junior college teacher who has his students going out in, I think it’s Hill County, and—and trying to find all the species of plants that grow in that county
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and then making a record of where they are and when they are and—and what’s there. That way, the student gets a heck of a nice education in biology and will carry it with them the rest of their life. Oh, that’s Texas trailing phlox. Oh, that’s a different kind of bluebonnet. Oh look at this; I didn’t think that was here. And then there will be a record of this so that people, if they will, can protect a rare, scarce, endangered species, or simply know that there’s value to this Texas prairie. There’s lots of examples. There’s a
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school in Round Rock that’s trying that’s trying to save some—some—some original prairie. There’s been a long court fight, I think they finally won. It’s another junior high school. Well, use restoration ecology as a neat way of educating in which you do not bore your students to tears, in which you give them something to do, and let them do it. Well, I’m enthusiastic about that, I suppose I’d ra—what did Martin Luther say? “Even on the last day of the world, plant a tree.”
DT: If you planted that tree, where would you plant it? One thing I try and ask many people is what their favorite outdoor spot is.
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PG: Well, let me give you an example. We have a project on this campus to plant trees, and I’ve given some money to it and I’ve encouraged the people—and I don’t know what I had to do with starting it, maybe not much. But, it makes the campus a heck of a lot nicer looking. But it also means that we don’t cut down all the trees in our parking lots so that you don’t have this thing where your car is so cold in January that you can’t bear to sit in it, or so hot that you have to open the doors and windows for a half an hour before you can even get in the car. And you can walk down under the shade of the sweet gum trees and feel pleasant, rather than either burning or freezing or getting the wind to
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blow you off. I think it’s fine to save rural places and I love it. And I think it’s fine to save park places, but how about the businesses where we work and the villages where we live and the—and the cities. Why can’t we make cities beautiful and livable? There’s lots of places to plant trees, or to plant grass, or to put up…
End of side 1 of tape 2, Reel 1016c
Start of side 2 of tape 2, Reel 1016d.
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DT: Is your favorite spot is in, maybe the place where you spend the most time, which is right here in Denton?
PG: In our yard, we have planted a mixed pine hardwood forest. We took a house that had three trees around it, or four, and now we—and they—they never watered it. Now we’ve got like thirty pine trees and we’ve planted fourteen different kinds of hardwoods and a bunch of under story trees, yaupons and cedars and American holly, and God knows what else. Our yard is a—a bird and squirrel refuge. Now we haven’t made it—we haven’t talked about it, we just did it. We like—for one thing, it protects us from that summer sun, which is so horrendous here. It used to be, you could put your hand on the
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Inside of the wall on the west side of our house from May through September, and you couldn’t even hold your hand against the wall, it was too painful, it was too hot. Now with all the trees we’ve planted, and I—I suppose our heating bill is a whole lot less than it was. So, yeah, we’ve done this, and I’ve got three, four mulch piles in the backyard in which I put all kinds of cause—we have mulching mower, but we’ve got so many leaves and pine needles and everything else that we put them back on the mulch pile and these—the leftover stuff that we could put in the garbage that’s biodegradable, we just put on the mulch pile. Then eventually I get soil that I put back under the shrubs and various stuff. As I say, I don’t talk much about it, but I do it. Anybody could do this if they owned a—a postage stamp in a suburb somewhere. So there’s lots—there’s endless number of
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ways to do endless number of things and the people who say, oh, it’s hopeless, no it’s not. Not—not here. In the case of India where you’re gonna have a billion people in a land area half the size of the United States, place is still basically agricultural and the water table is dropping everywhere, you should despair in India or parts of Central America and Africa. And there, you’ve got a—a different kind of a problem that you really can despair over. But here, if we get to it soon enough and use our common sense and care about things, there’s a lot that we can do.
DT: Do you possibly have any songs that you could sing about some of these beautiful spots and some of the challenges that you’ve…
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PG: Well, I’ve got a couple that I could sing for you.
(Break in tape)
DT: Well we’re going to start up here again with a little bit of music.
PG: Okay, I mentioned Archer Fullingham. And this is a song about Archer. It was also a commission by Archer, who—who came up to me one day down in southeast Texas and said, I want you to write a song about me. I said, that’s a thought. I’d like to do that Archer; you’re a very colorful character. And he said—no, I said, I want you to write something about me and the Big Thicket and talk (inaudible). And I said, what? He said, lately I’ve gone out to the back creek thicket, the sun sets down through the pite oak—white oak boughs and the—and the loblolly pines, and the—and the—and the tupelos and I get this feeling like having the Holy Ghost, (?) talking in tongues. So, Archer came through Denton on the way to a high school reunion over here at Lowndes County at Decatur. And I came by and he asked to hear my song, and I had written a song about him, but it didn’t include talking in tongues and he was mightily upset. So this is—this is Archer’s (?).
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PG: Archer wanted me to sing that at his funeral, but his family never asked for some reason. (Inaudible). Archer, neat character. Anyhow, there is a Texas Water Development Board project called the Texas Water Plan which would have brought water from the lower Mississippi River all the way through eastern, central Texas up to the Panhandle. And, there are a few problems with it. One is that that water by the time you get it in Louisiana, is the most polluted in the United States. But mostly they didn’t think to cover it with any kind of a cover so that it would have all evaporated by the time it got there. But also it would have cost an incalculable hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. It wasn’t very well—it wasn’t very well designed. They had it bringing water through Gainesville, Texas right up California Street. (?), you know, Gainesville, that’s the main street east to west (inaudible). At any rate, this is it.
DT: Well that concludes our recording of songs and memories by Pete Gunter on January 18, 1998. Thanks very much.
[End of reel 1016]
[End of interview with Pete Gunter]