Matt Dickerson: Of cliff swallows and javelinas

It was hard to keep my eyes on the road as our car roller-coastered through the Texas Hill Country. Thanks to the winter rainy season, wildflowers in myriad hues of blue, yellow, white and red blanketed the ground. Though we had missed the season for the state’s famous bluebonnets, the Indian blankets were in full bloom. Also known as “firewheel,” their deep red petals tipped in yellow were accented by an occasional stem of blue sage popping up in their midst.
The fields of wildflowers were not all that drew my gaze when I could risk a glance away from the winding pavement. I also kept an eye out past the high fences that lined the roadside, looking for wildlife grazing in the sparse grasses or resting in the shade of the short, gnarled cedars and squat oaks that dotted the dry, rocky landscape of this Hill Country.
Ranches that owned and maintained those miles of fences seemed to spread out forever. Some must have been the size of an entire Vermont town. Indeed, a few might have been as big as a Vermont county. They were so large they had multiple gated entrances. We drove past one sign bearing the name of the ranch above the words, “Gate 6.” Gates 5 and 7 were nowhere in sight. Miles away, I assumed. Between them, the high fences kept unwanted visitors from getting into the ranches, and equally importantly kept the large mammals from roaming out (at least some of the time).
Though we did pass a few cattle in one relatively treeless stretch of land, for the most part the “large mammals” contained within those fences were exotics: non-native wildlife that had been brought to Texas to entertain wealthy hunters. We spotted a small group of zebras wandering among a stand of cedars on the north side of the road. Further along, another ranch (or perhaps just another section of the same ranch) had African antelope with long pronghorns. Axis deer from southern India were popular also, along with various types of exotic sheep and goats.
In many places through this region of Texas, escaped exotics have become a big problem, displacing native animals including whitetail deer and damaging crops. The spotted axis deer in particular — also known as chital deer, which are usually somewhat smaller than whitetail, but sport more impressive antlers — now roam freely in several Texas counties, where they have overpopulated, not having to contend with their natural predators: the Bengal tigers, leopards, crocodiles and even pythons that would have hunted them in their native forests.
Eventually our drive took us past the last trickle of water that marked the headwaters of the Guadalupe River, over a small divide, and down toward the headwaters of the Rio Frio. Like the upper Guadalupe, the upper Frio usually carries only a small amount of water compared to a typical Vermont river. Yet as it flows through deep limestone canyons with sheer walls, it tumbles over a series of manmade dams eight to 10 feet high, each creating a deep pool — some a quarter-mile long or more — of clear, emerald water full of bass, catfish and turtles.
My destination, a retreat center where I was attending a writers’ retreat, lay down in one of those box canyons on the Rio Frio, with the balcony of the main lodge leaning out over the river from the edge of a bluff. Looking down off the balcony, I could see big black catfish swimming below me, perhaps waiting for morsels of table crumbs.
Soon, though, my attention was diverted elsewhere. Though I’ve been going to Laity Lodge for more than a decade, I’d never been there so late in the year when temperatures had reached the 80s. So I was startled to see the air above the river thick with cliff swallows, circling, darting, diving, in swarms of hundreds that reminded me of a murmuration of starlings. They arrive in mid spring every year, when the last danger of frost is past. Mating season, in fact, and I soon realized that their flights also included some unmistakable mating tumbles. After some more time watching, I also realized that many of the cliff swallows had forsaken the cliffs that gave them their name, and were instead building mud nests against the vertical concrete joists holding up the balcony of the lodge.
BRILLIANT “FIREWHEELS” WERE among the many colorful wildflowers that greeted our columnist during a recent trip to the Texas Hill Country.
Photo courtesy of Matt Dickerson
I’ve often thought of built environments and their impacts. This week my newest book was released, titled “The Voices of Rivers.” Those rivers whose voices I had spent several years listening to and writing about were all wild, cold, northern rivers, mostly in Maine, Montana and Alaska, and mostly flowing out of rugged mountains off melting snow and glaciers. Those are the sorts of places I’m usually drawn.
In Texas, by contrast, I spent several days by a slow-moving southern river warm enough to swim in even in April. The only reason the water was deep enough to swim in was the dam that ran wall-to-wall across the canyon. In that sense, it was far from wild. Nor could the Texas Hill Country be called “mountainous.” Although the lodge was surrounded by thousands of acres of rugged, undeveloped land, with only a few hiking and biking trails and even fewer dirt roads, the human impact on the region was unmistakable, including the variety of large exotic mammals roaming the area.
And yet, over the course of a decade, I have fallen in love with that lodge, that canyon, that river. Every year I discover something new: a different wildflower in bloom, or a new species of bird or animal. I’ve been there when turkeys were roosting in the trees along the river. I’ve been there during turtle mating season. The plaintive echoes of mourning doves off canyon walls has become as familiar as the ever-present shadows of circling vultures high up the cliff walls.
This year it was the cliff swallows. Also, a pair of grunting javelinas (a pig-like mammal) that startled my wife and me on our last hike, and fortunately decided to bolt away from us instead of toward us. And hummingbirds that showed up four, five, six and even seven at a time at the feeder on the deck. But mostly it was the delicate swallows with a patch of blue-green on their backs not unlike the color of the water below them. It was one of the first times in my life that I could have spent all day watching two-foot long fish swimming in a river, and yet I chose instead to watch swallows.
It was also a good reminder that mountains and cold wilderness rivers are not the only beautiful places in the world, and that built human environments, especially when the architecture respects the land around it, can also be peaceful, beautiful and hospitable. I’m also thinking next year I need to bring my fly rod, just in case the swallows haven’t arrived.

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