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History, stewardship, and community

Reflections from a rancher and a writer


History, stewardship, and community

Many of our readers have told us how much they appreciate the writings of John R. Erickson, the author of the popular Hank the Cowdog series of children’s books. He has worked as a cowboy and ranch manager in Texas and Oklahoma, and for this Saturday Series, he shares three essays reflecting on lessons learned from the land, as well as the people who live on it. —Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Where have all the cottonwoods gone?

After buying this ranch in 1990, we devoted the first several months to exploring all its canyons. The northern border of the place ran parallel to the northern rim of the Canadian River valley, and our country included three major canyon systems: Point Creek Canyon, Picket Canyon, and Big Rocks Canyon, all of which ran north-to-south and carried rainwater to the Canadian River.

As we explored the canyons, sometimes horseback and sometimes afoot, I began to notice something odd: There were no young cottonwood trees on the place.

We found some old cottonwoods. They were magnificent trees, but they were all surrounded by large cedar trees, so that you could see only the topmost branches of the cottonwoods sticking out above the evergreen foliage.

This was puzzling. How could you get a cottonwood tree in the midst of a cedar forest? Cedar is a conquering type of tree. It doesn’t share its territory but takes it over, shading out all other forms of vegetation, even weeds and grass, with its dense canopy. And yet here were these big cottonwoods growing in the midst of the cedars.

It took me a while to come up with an answer. It has to do with the changes that have occurred to this country over the past hundred years. Here’s my theory:

In the 1870s, before the arrival of the first Anglo settlers, our canyons contained springs and even creeks that flowed maybe a mile before they disappeared into the sand. The dominant tree around these watercourses was the cottonwood. Cottonwoods are water-loving trees. Where you find them, water is close to the surface.

By the 1930s much of the flat country above the caprock had been broken out for farming. When the Great Plains region was hit by the catastrophic drought of the 1930s, topsoil from the fields washed down into the canyons, smothering springs whose flow had already been reduced by the drought.

When the springs dried up, the older cottonwoods survived but few of their seeds took root. Those that did grow into seedlings were eaten by cattle, whose supply of grass had been diminished by the drought.

Thus, in just a few years, the combination of drought and overgrazing produced a situation that altered the vegetation in the canyons, and made it almost impossible for the cottonwoods to reproduce themselves.

Into the breach came the opportunistic cedar (actually, they’re junipers). Birds ate cedar berries, brought them into the canyons, roosted in the cottonwoods, and planted cedars on the ground below. Young cedars took root and thrived. Not only could they survive without surface water, but the cattle found them unpalatable and left them alone.

The situation compounded itself over the years. As the cedars grew into large trees, they sank their roots into the water table, dropping it even further, while above ground the cedar canopy choked out the bottomland grasses that had once provided good grazing for cattle.

We found the results when we bought the ranch: springs that had dried up, dense cedar forests that had enveloped century-old cottonwood trees, and the absence of young cottonwoods.

The cottonwood tree was on the road to extinction in our little piece of the world.

One of my goals as steward of this land has been to bring back the cottonwoods. In Picket Canyon we have located and opened up two springs. We are thinning the cedars and transplanting young cottonwood trees from the river. We have removed all the cattle from the canyon and are using it strictly as a horse pasture.

Mother Nature is responding to our lead. Where the springs have begun to flow and the cedar canopy has been removed, young cottonwoods are popping up and surviving. It will be a slow process, but one of these days Picket Canyon will once again hear the clatter of cottonwood leaves on a hot summer day.

Arrowhead hunting

Not long ago, the daughter of a good friend of mine asked if she and her husband could come out to the ranch and hunt arrowheads. When I told her we didn’t allow that, I think it hurt her feelings.

We were in the grocery store and I didn’t have time to explain to her what “hunting arrowheads” meant to me. To her, it meant getting out into the country, enjoying nature, and searching for interesting trinkets. To me, it meant something else.

We have several prehistoric habitation sites on our ranch, and part of my responsibility as steward of the land requires me to protect them from people who might destroy them—not out of meanness, but out of careless misuse.

I’m not the first man to own and love this ranch. Before me came the Hodges family, who bought it in 1917. Before them came the Tandys, the Merediths, and the State of Texas. That is the information contained in the abstracts.

What is not in the abstracts is who came before the State of Texas, and there the trail grows dim. Cowboys from the Bar CC ranch, buffalo hunters, and Mexican sheepherders spent time here, and moved on. But even they were relative newcomers. They camped at springs that had furnished water and firewood for thousands of years to people about whom we know very little.

There is a kinship between me and them. This was their ranch at one time, and I assume they loved the place as much as we do. Who were they? What did they do? Why were they here and why did they leave?

I am fascinated by those questions, and the answers will come from the items they left behind: burned rock, charred animal bones, grinding stones, pot sherds, flint chips, and an assortment of stone tools, including the one most prized by hunters: arrowheads.

People who hunt arrowheads seldom know anything about them, only that they are old and were made by “Indians.” But the very term “Indians” is misleading. The prehistoric “Indians” in the Canadian River valley were not one tribe or cultural group, but rather five or six cultures that range from paleo-Indians who were here thousands of years ago, to the historic tribes who were here when Europeans first arrived.

The Indians about whom we know the most, the Kiowas and Comanches, left the least behind for us to study. They didn’t even make points of flint. They used steel, and most of their points have rusted away.

The term “arrowhead” is also misleading. Some “arrowheads” were not used on arrows at all, but rather were fastened to darts that were flung by a device called the atlatl. The tiny point which amateurs often call “bird points” were not used for birds, but for penetrating the ribs of a bison.

There are many kinds of projectile points. Any site may yield a dozen different styles and shapes, and each type will give an archeologist valuable diagnostic information about the period from which it came. Dart points identify a site as belonging to the Archaic Period, roughly 5000 B.C. to A.D. 1. Corner-notched points come from the Woodland Period and yield a date in the range of A.D. 1 to A.D. 900. Side-notched points were produced by people of the Plains Village Period, A.D. 900 to A.D. 1400.

Oftentimes, and especially around active springs, all three point styles will appear at the same site, indicating that the site was occupied by different cultural groups over a long period of time. In these instances, a trained investigator will study the composition of the soil and record the depth at which each artifact appears.

“Pot hunters” who dig into a site with shovels and screen the dirt for trinkets destroy forever the information it might reveal. The damage can never be reversed once the soils have been mixed and the best of the artifacts removed.

Projectile points are the most important artifacts for dating a site and identifying its cultural period. When you pick one up, carry it home, and put it in a cigar box, you are destroying the context from which it came and reducing it to a trinket.

So, to the lady in the grocery store, that’s why we don’t allow arrowhead hunting on our place.


Jimmy and I grew up in a small town. We memorized Bible verses in the same church on Sunday. In high school, he was not an exceptional student, just quiet and polite. He didn’t belong to any of the groups that were regarded as “popular.” He stayed on the edges and never drew much notice.

In May of his senior year, he walked across the stage at graduation, all set to go out and grab the world by the tail, but returned to the town that raised him and became a policeman.

We saw him at funerals, stopping traffic for the line of cars going to the cemetery. Hot or cold, snow or rain, he stood at attention with his hat over his chest, his eyes straight ahead, while the cars filed past. Sometimes, if you waved, he gave a stiff professional nod in reply.

In his sixties, he had acquired some gray in his hair, but looked good. He talked about retiring from the police department and said he wanted to travel. Someone asked, “Have you noticed a common trait in the people you arrest and put in jail?” He laughed and said, “Yeah. Stupid.”

Nothing prepared us for the story on the evening news. Jimmy had been arrested for sexual assault of a child and had signed a confession.

We felt sick and numb, made calls to friends and muttered, “I can’t believe it.” Jimmy had won respect as an agent of law and order. Now the system he had served was saying that he was a criminal.

His mug shot was on the front page of the next morning’s paper. It is difficult to describe the expression in his eyes: hollow, vacant, far away; a man utterly alone, a man who never thought this day would come.

How do you face the loss of everything? Do you call one of your old classmates and say, “Hi Joe, you got a minute? I’ve got a problem.” Do you call your pastor? What do you say to your wife?

Jimmy made bail, went out into the back yard, and shot himself.

It appeared that he had molested children for years, maybe for decades, while serving beside trained investigators who worked abuse cases all the time. They never suspected a thing. They were just as stunned as the rest of us.

That was the element that made it so difficult to absorb, the enormity of the deceit. Jimmy deceived the community into believing that he was who we thought he was, and deceived himself into thinking that he would never get caught. Maybe that was the “stupid” he had detected in the people he locked up.

Like most abusers, he was abused as a child. For reasons that most of us can’t fathom, as adults they are compelled to inflict the same sin on others, to corrupt the innocent as they were once corrupted. The sin is multiplied and propelled into the future, and the rest of us are left to deal with shattered lives and broken trust.

My heart ached—for Jimmy, for the victims, for the families, for myself, for a little town that felt shamed and betrayed. Jimmy spared himself the humiliation of being judged by the legal system, and spared the rest of us the agony of having to watch, but this is a wound that won’t go away.

We flee to the Psalms.

“From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair…The darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88:15)

John R. Erickson John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.


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