6.16.2010,12:10 PM
Necessities Now and Then

We think we need many things. Yet at some stage -or several stages- of our lives we find we need less, but want too many things. Then again, every time I drive through the suburbs around here I wonder why families with 1.5 children and a dog need 3,000-square foot houses with roofs that look like giant conehead hats. Perhaps most of us don't really know the difference between 'want' and 'need'.

We do know,  however, that we have three basic needs for survival: food, air and water. In our modern societies we have much more food than we need, judging from the growing incidence of obesity in this country (scientists refer to this as an 'obesogenic' enviornment). So let's rearrange the former: we need air, water, and less food than what we have access to.

Without air, we would die a quick death: humans take an average of 23,000 breaths every day, and the brain will die (or suffer irreversible damage) within 6-8 minutes without oxygen. Air is our first necessity.

Our second most important necessity is water. Roughly two-thirds of our bodies are composed of water, although not all is the sloshy water you tend to think of when you urinate or that swirls in your stomach. Water is mostly stored in muscle and body fat, but is also an important component of ligaments, tendons, blood and skin. Even your eyes.

Water is the most important nutrient for nearly all living things.  As the body dehydrates, its blood becomes thicker and loses volume. This causes the heart to work harder and circulation of blood to be less efficient. Physical and mental abilities decrease and dizziness is often an early sign of dehydration. The end is not pretty.

Although several factors influence survival rates without water, temperature and humidity are the prominent environmental factors. For instance, at ambient (air) temperature of 90 degrees F, a body in shade can last about seven days with no water before death. That does not factor in movement, clothing, body weight, health status, etc.  The bottom line is: we all need water.

Anyone that has visited West Texas, or any arid and semi-arid region, knows that the limiting factor for survival is water. Anyone that has stepped out of their vehicle, that is. An observant visitor can deduce water availability by noticing species of the vegetation: cacti, succulents, certain grasses and trees are indicators of water availability. These dry-climate inhabitants have evolved for efficiency of water, both use and storage. The only large mammal that excels living in dry climates is the camel. Even though camels originated on the North American continent, they were extinct here about three million years ago.

We don't see any camels in West Texas (unless you spot friend Doug Baum of the Texas Camel Corps trodding around Big Bend with his faithful dromadaries), although many were imported into southern region in the 1800's. In fact, we see fewer species of animals in these drier areas because of one major limiting factor: water availability.

Humans are no exception. Even since before colonial times, arid areas of the continent were avoided. They were considered 'No Man's Land'. The only reason most inhabited places exist in arid environments now is because modern technology facilitates extracting and pumping underground water or piping it overland from reservoirs often at great distances away. But the Law of Supply and Demand slowly begins to throw the balance towards decreasing water supplies while demand grows exponentially. At some point in the future, water may be worth more than what we can pay. As we shall see, perhaps more than any other environmental factor, water availability influenced human history in west Texas and will continue to do so.

Historically, people camped and settled near sources of water: rivers, lakes, streams and springs. They used water for drinking, navigation, bathing, washing and in processing food and other resources (lumber, etc). Thus nearly all early settlements were located near bodies of water. Although several rivers and their tributaries stretch their fingers from west and central Texas, ultimately draining into the Gulf waters, sections of these waters were unreliable for drinking water. They cycled from low levels during droughts to flash floods that widened valleys and often changing courses.

Not all the rivers provided fresh water. Many sections of the Brazos River contain minerals rendering the water non-potable (undrinkable).  An underground brine aquifer deposits salt onto the ground, which eventually washes into the The Salt Fork of the Brazos rendering it a murky rust color. In this area potable water is either distilled and purified or provided from another source.

The region once occupied by Fort Griffin is situated on the floodplains of The Clear Fork of the Brazos. This section of the river is characterized by muddy water, steep banks, and low overhanging willow, pecan, and elm trees. Its flow ranges from languid with visible gravel bars to murky rushing flood water. Like any river, its width and course changes and so does its water quality. Before technology introduced dams and purifiers, this river and others were unreliable for both volume and quality.

Settlers near the rivers had few options for water supplies: buckets of river and creek water or hand-dug wells. Situated on top of a plateau, the fort derived their water from both sources. Water was hauled from a nearby creek and stored in cisterns to supply the makeshift hospital. Neither remain today. At the edge of the parade grounds is a hand-dug well. The 45-foot deep well remains today with standing water that remains cool despite the hot temperatures.

Water availability and quality were the primary reasons for the failure and eventual abandonment of many Texas forts and settlements. Forts Phantom Hill and Griffin were often plagued with water issues; the former was short-lived as a result of water shortage. Fort Griffin fared slightly better, but the lack of a dependable water supply was to haunt the fort throughout its active years.

Now the mesa top is quiet and dry. Spring rains push a flush of green of prairie grass and the prickly pears dot the surface with their big yellow flowers. Wildlife beat trails of dust down to watering places along the river and streams and windmills of scattered ranches pump water from underground into cisterns. Later in the summer heat, monotones of brown and beige betray the area's dry soils while dust trails hooves and wheels.

The land reclaims what is hers and those that stay are weathered but not beaten. Nor do they waste those resources from which they derive what they need.

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posted by Macrobe
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