2.07.2009,10:47 AM
Pieces of Terlingua: History, not Frontier

Many people refer to the Big Bend as the 'last frontier'. Well, it's not really. In a few ways the physical environment of the region is unique, surely unique for Texas. But not the rest of the Southwest, and especially not unique of Mexico, its neighbor. 'Frontier' is a misnomer, living largely in the mythical past of the West. It has been a word describing a process of going-to-a region. And throughout this country 'frontier' has been analogous to 'conquest.' In that respect, the frontier ended in the 1890's. Everywhere. And still seems to dictate a sense of place today. We are still trying to conquer this country. But should we? Need we?

If one looks at history as changes occurring within a framework of culture, ethnicity, language, economy, politics, and the environment over time, it is still cycling through; it encompasses past, present and future. It addresses questions of 'How did we get here?", "Who are we?", and "Where do we go from here?". It's not really a frontier story of how we got to this place and conquered it, but a state of being and a sense of place that connects us with everything and everyone around us: past, present, future, and being in a region.

Big Bend region is unique to Texas in that the the physical and political environment has dictated history more than the rest of the state. It is arid with limited resources, drawn and quartered by a national political boundary: the border along Mexico. The area has been, and still is, highly influenced by many cultures: Anglo-American, Mexican-American, Indian, and even remnants of old Spanish. Economics and politics have been (and still are) influenced by state, federal, local and Mexican. All within an arid environment which, like other arid places in the US, impart a uniqueness from the rest of the state and country.

History is still alive here. Ghosts from the past remain and influence the present and future. Like any region and place, myths abound and people like their myths. But the facts are easier to sort out and see here. The environment dictates that because it resists the historical trend of human domination and conquest. So the sense of place one has here is nearly the same that humans had here thousands of years ago. Thus 'frontier' here has little relevance. It is instead a sense of place and being; less romantic and many times brutal and harsh, but it nurtures a connection that most people lack in urban and even many rural places. Including Texas.

One component in unique places such as Big Bend is the cross-over and overlap of cultures. Terlingua is a precious living example of western history and how the environment influenced changes in human habitation. It is also a prime example of the reverse: how human occupation changed the environment. People are attracted to Terlingua and the surrounding region because of the simplicity, diversity and connection that the region demands. Not to conquer it. (an example of the latter is the history and ongoing saga of Lijitas.)

Although the typical and historical western trend of land sharks, with which land is strictly a commodity and not a 'place', are apparent in the Big Bend region, examples of settlements as connected habitats are visible. One aspect that the southern area of the Big Bend region nurtures is a sense of community; largely dictated by the environment, but also facilitated by the type of people that live there.

One manifestation in this blending of cultures includes modes of habitation: homes, buildings, construction methods and materials. People are renovating ruins of rock and adobe structures to serve as their homes. Or they are following the traditional building of small, low and unobtrusive structures using material from their surroundings: adobe, rock, sand, washed gravel, etc. Many people live off the power grids, some of necessity, some by desire.

The most precious resource in any arid environment is water. In the past, the only sources were creeks -seasonal and year-round- and dug wells. Primitive water catchment systems have been used for generations, and now modern systems are incorporated in many homes and establishments.

Although a community water system exists in Study Butte and Terlingua, it is limited. The same applies to capacity for waste disposal and treatment. With the increase in demand by more people visiting and living in these areas, community systems -both sources and services- are experiencing growing pains. The future depends on if and how people will adapt to these limitations or if they will be ignored with increased demand beyond the system capacities, which has and still occurs in more urban areas (even many rural areas) of the arid West. What many people take for granted in their home localities -water, waste treatment, utilities- are expected at the same levels in the Big Bend region. It has and can break, sometimes destroy arid local areas such as Study Butte, Terlingua, and Lajitas.

I hope that rather than try to provide for unreasonable and excess expectations of newcomers and visitors to those places, the communities will try to increase and broaden awareness of their limited resources and how to adapt to them. (example: the signs in restroom and bathrooms asking not to flush any paper down the drains and to conserve water usage.) Time will tell.

Meanwhile, I will continue with a tour of Terlingua for readers.

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posted by Macrobe
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