Tristan’s Truth

The Court Jester

Some years ago, Oakland, California’s FOX News Affiliate KTVU allowed itself to be pranked in a most remarkable way. After broadcasting false names for the captain and crew of the ill-fated Asiana Airlines Flight 214, the station attempted to deal with the ensuing furor by insisting that the National Transportation Safety Board had confirmed the crew’s identities.

In turn, the NTSB claimed it wasn’t their fault —  at least, not officially. It was the fault of a summer intern: a youngster who’d roamed just far enough off the reservation to allow a Bart Simpson-like joke to make it all the way to the national airwaves. As the NTSB put it, rather primly:

Earlier today, in response to an inquiry from a media outlet, a summer intern acted outside the scope of his authority when he erroneously confirmed the names of the flight crew on the aircraft.
The NTSB does not release or confirm the names of crewmembers or people involved in transportation accidents to the media. We work hard to ensure that only appropriate factual information regarding an investigation is released and deeply regret today’s incident.
Appropriate actions will be taken to ensure that such a serious error is not repeated.

After discovering the online hubbub, I feared I was suffering heatstroke. I couldn’t imagine even the most loosely-run or inattentive news organization failing to pick up on names that clearly were fake, and that had made the rounds of Iowa playgrounds more than fifty years ago.

But they weren’t paying attention, they didn’t take the time to read the names aloud, and they went live with a “breaking news” update that surely made the Monday morning staff meeting a nightmare for someone.

Watching the video of the broadcast a second time, I confess I laughed. I laughed because of the word play, and I laughed from astonishment that such a thing could happen. Most of all, I laughed at the speed with which the entire event moved from mistake to embarassment to apology to pending lawsuit. Today, things move even more quickly, but even so, it took only minutes for the apology to be issued and the facts clarified. In two more days, Asiana began muttering about lawsuits, and the firings began.

Two decades ago, things moved more slowly. When sailor, author, and adventurer Tristan Jones died on Phuket Island, Thailand, in 1995, one obituary appeared in the British newspaperThe Independent. Written by Euan Cameron, Jones’s British editor and quite an admirer of the man often called, without apology, “the old rum-gagger,” the obituary tended ever so slightly toward hagiography:

Tristan Jones’s life was a series of adventures. Since he was a Welshman, a sailor, a romantic, and a story-teller in the best seafaring tradition, the adventures were so plentiful that they filled eight books of autobiography and were sometimes so improbable that they defied belief.
It all began with a breach birth [sic] in a full storm, aboard a British tramp steamer, 150 miles north-east of Tristan da Cunha  (hence the Christian name) in May 1924. Mrs. Jones was the ship’s cook and both she and Tristan’s father came from a long line of Welsh master mariners. “By God, this one will always land on his feet!” the ship’s mate was reported to have said, as he delivered the baby from the 10-hour ordeal. “He may be a candidate for hanging one day, but he’ll never drown!

Cameron went on to note that throughout Jones’s life, as might be expected,  pinpointing the sailor’s location could be difficult. He kept landing on his feet in out-of-the-way locations, and sending letters home requesting that money be cabled to Bahia Concha in Columbia, or engine parts dispatched to Constanta on the Black Sea.

It seems never to have occurred to Mr. Cameron that Jones’s sudden disappearances and vague itineraries might be the work of a trickster: a prankster, a sleight-of-mind artist. But at the time there was no reason for suspicion. His books, filled with roaring oceans and exciting landfalls, appeared regularly and sold in the thousands. His book signings at boat shows brought in hundreds of sailors. When I met him at a fall boat show in the late 1980s, I was utterly charmed. One of my acquaintances, even more impressed, signed on as volunteer crew.

Still, there were mysteries. His eventual biographer, Anthony Dalton, remembers that Jones didn’t want his biography written during his lifetime. His books were autobiographical, he insisted, so there was no need for a formal biography. He felt so strongly about the subject that he included a stipulation in his will that no biography was to be written until at least thirty years after his death. Later, he amended that to a financial condition. No biography could be written without payment of $100,000 to the Tristan Jones Trust.

His reasons for not wanting his true story told, Dalton discovered, had little to do with modesty and far more to do with a lack of probity. As he began piecing together Jones’s life, one accidentally discovered falsehood led inexorably to another.

The man who claimed to have sailed more than 345,000 miles in boats under forty feet, who said he sailed 180,000 miles solo, and who told his readers he had crossed the Atlantic nineteen times under sail…had far less experience at sea than he was prepared to admit. The man who claimed to have been torpedoed three times before his eighteenth birthday, who said he had taken a sailboat farther north into Arctic waters than anyone else, who told his readers of being trapped in polar ice for months at a time, was something of a fraud.

Despite the details of Euan Cameron’s obituary – details picked up and passed around the world for years – the man who said he was born at sea on his father’s ship in 1924 actually was born on land five years later, and Dalton has the facts about “Tristan” Jones.

Arthur Jones was born in Liverpool in 1929, the illegitimate son of a working-class Lancashire girl, and he grew up in orphanages with little education. Too young to see action in the World War II naval battles he would later write about so movingly, he joined the Royal Navy in 1946 and served fourteen unremarkable years.

Why would a man who was an accomplished sailor, a beloved raconteur, a remarkable adventurer, and a successful author feel the need to ‘prank’ his audience? Dalton points to cultural heritage as one possible explanation.

If we accept that he was Welsh, as he claimed he was and as it’s possible he was, he was far from alone in his ability to weave fabulous tales. British author Melvyn Bragg, in his biography of Welsh actor Richard Burton, said, “In his cups [Burton] was a story-teller who embellished whenever necessary, and he expected the brightest listeners to understand the art.”
As Bragg put it, “The Welsh way was to talk it up. Celtic stories were tall tales, and if your audience was daft enough to swallow it whole – so much the worse for them. He truly didn’t give a damn.”

And perhaps that is the key to unlocking the mystery of Tristan Jones. There simply was no reason for him to give a damn. If his persona was invented, his knowledge and love of the sea was real. If he engaged in trickery on shore, he knew the tricks of his sea-trade as well as anyone, and was willing to share them freely. He may have pranked the whole sailing world for decades, but in coves and in bays, sheltered at tiny island anchorages and buffeted on interminable offshore passages, his books continued to inspire and entertain the people dearest to him – the ones who put to sea.

And as for those ashore? He was happy for their company, too. As he liked to say, some sail the oceans and some do not, but everyone sets sail on the sea of life, and the lessons of the sea apply to all. I came across a favorite passage from one of his books when making a sea passage myself, and never have doubted its truth:

The Sea knows nothing of money or power.
She knows only loyalty and audacity
and determination and courage
and, by God, she knows an unthinking, unseeing fool when she encounters one.

She knows awareness.
She knows patience.
She knows staunchness.
She knows foresight.
Yet she knows nothing of our longing for riches or fame
or even of our efforts to overcome or thwart her.

She gives an illusion of freedom,
but in reality she demands restraint, caution, self-discipline,
and a deep belief in the grace of God.

If we have none of these attributes
when we join her,
we shall have them when we have known her
for any length of time,

or we will be defeated or dead.
~ Tristan Jones

Comments always are welcome.
My photos were taken offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Eastern Pacific, and in Glacier Bay.

A Little Hike to a Big Tree

The Big Tree ~ Goose Island, Texas

For years after being designated Texas’s State Champion Coastal Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) in 1966, the tree affectionately known as The Big Tree reigned in leafy splendor at Goose Island State Park near Rockport.

Thirty-five feet in circumference and forty-four feet tall, the Goose Island Tree is more than a thousand years old. It would have been little more than a sprout when Dirk III, Count of Holland, defeated Holy Roman Emperor Henry II at the Battle of Vlaardingen; when England’s Buckfast Abbey was founded; or when Aeddan ap Blegywryd, King of Gwynedd, passed on.

More recently, the giant oak survived an 1864 Civil War battle that destroyed the nearby town of Lamar. After doing battle with Hurricane Harvey, although battered, somewhat broken, and stripped of leaves, it remained firmly rooted to its ground.

The Big Tree after Hurricane Harvey ~ September 5, 2017 (Texas Parks & Wildlife photo)

Today, the Goose Island tree continues to recover, but it’s no longer our champion live oak. That honor now belongs to a tree on private property in Colorado County. Certified in August of 2016, the Colorado County oak is 61 feet high, with a circumference of 338 inches and a crown spread of 114 feet.

The current champion live oak ~ Colorado County

Between the reign of the Goose Island oak and the designation of the Colorado County oak as Texas’s largest, a third, equally impressive tree served as state champion. Still the second largest live oak in Texas, and one of the largest in the United States, the so-called San Bernard Oak was discovered in 2000 and officially entered into the record books in 2003.

Estimated to be 200 to 300 years old, the San Bernard Oak is hidden away in Brazoria County, on the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge. The area, sometimes called Austin’s Woods in tribute to Stephen F. Austin and the settlers he brought here in 1823, is more commonly known as the Columbia Bottomlands: another historical reference. Established in 1826 by Josiah Hughes Bell, Columbia (known today as West Columbia) served as capital of the Republic of Texas from September to December 1836.

The Columbia Bottomlands extend through four Texas counties — Brazoria, Matagorda, Fort Bend and Wharton — and share a forested floodplain network of rivers, creeks, ponds, and marshes.

Finding the San Bernard Oak isn’t difficult, but it does require a bit more effort than driving up and snapping a photo. This satellite image shows the upper half of the trail. At the bottom edge, toward the right, you can see the trail crossing a utility easement. Nearer the center of the image, another section of the trail is visible; the San Bernard Oak is to the north and west of the visible trail.

The Columbia Bottomlands, one of the few forested communities within the Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes ecoregion, consist of interconnected floodplains of the Brazos, San Bernard, and Colorado Rivers. Historically a patchwork of forested bottoms and prairie uplands, they extend approximately 75 miles inland, and serve a variety of critical funtions: lessening the destructiveness of floods; reducing soil erosion; retaining river-borne sediments; and filtering out pollutants.

While some protected bottomland areas now are closed or only partially open to the public, the San Bernard Oak is accessible, and the trail leading to the oak is as interesting as the tree itself.

 

After a short drive from the main section of the San Bernard Refuge, a sign marks the beginning of an ecotone: a word used to designate transitional areas of vegetation between two different plant communities. Here, the transition is between wet prairie and bottomland forest; evidence of plants’ adaptations to increased shade, less sandy soil, and constant fluctuations in water levels is obvious even to casual observers.

At the trailhead, vines and a few palmettos suggest the changes to come.

As the trail narrows and shade becomes deeper, a wall of green thickens on either side. Still, at the woods’ edge, enough sunlight flickers through to encourage a variety of flowers:

Purple bindweed (Ipomoea cordatotriloba)
Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)
Turk’s cap ~ Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii

On either side of the first boardwalk, no water is apparent, but soils are moist, and more flowers appear.

Heartleaf skullcap ~ Scutellaria ovata
Panicled ticktrefoil ~ Desmodium paniculatum
Texas pinkroot ~ Spigelia texana

Here and there, deer trails intersect the main path. Follow one, and the little dramas of woodland life appear everywhere. Impaled on a broken segment of vine, a moth  — perhaps a Virginia tiger moth — may become another creature’s midnight snack.

Close by, an Eastern Pondhawk struggles to contain a Pearl Crescent butterfly.

Sometimes, there are mysteries. I can’t identify either this plant or the spider who did the work, but the shape of the shadow suggests something else tucked away for safe keeping.

Scattered throughout the leaf litter, older bones bespeak earlier struggles. Snake, raccoon, and deer are easily enough identified. Other fragments require more knowledge, and a sharper eye.

Eventually, dry leaves give way to water, and the value of the boardwalk becomes obvious.

Some plants thrive in the wetter conditions, blooming and apparently thriving despite being anchored in standing water.

Brazos penstemon ~ Penstemon tenuis
White swamp milkweed ~ Asclepias perennis

As the trail approaches the utility easement, the canopy opens, and flowers more closely associated with prairies and full sunlight begin to appear.

Evening primrose (white form) ~ Oenothera speciosa
Mexican hat ~ Ratibida columnifera
Gulf vervain ~ Verbena xutha
Pyramid flower ~ Melochia pyramidata
Clasping Venus’ looking-glass ~ Triodanis perfoliata
Carolina elephant’s foot ~ Elephantopus carolinianus

Here, too, the practical skill and artistry of the spider is evident.

Black and yellow Argiope cocooning its prey ~ Argiope aurantia
Golden silk orbweaver ~Trichonephila clavipes

Eventually, the boardwalk turns and runs parallel to Little Slough, and a true ‘wet bottomland’ emerges.  In especially rainy years, the area may remain saturated for months. Thick groves of palmettos indicate poorly drained soils, while trees such as cedar elm, green ash, hackberry, and water oak thrive in the watery glade: well-adapted to prolonged flooding.

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Dwarf palmetto ~ Sabal minor

Hidden among the trees and vines, a variety of butterflies, moths, amphibians and snakes secret themselves, motionless and nearly invisible.

Ilia underwing ~ Catocala ilia

Rushes and sedges abound, while long-stemmed, woody vines called lianas root in the soil before making use of their tendrils to climb or twine around the trees.

Short-bristled Horned Beaksedge ~ Rhynchospora corniculata
Vines represent one structural difference between tropical and temperate forests; where lianas have formed a hanging network of vegetation, their presence provides a good indicator of older, more mature woodlands. In the Columbia Bottomlands, rattan, trumpet vine, Virginia creeper, and mustang grape twine toward the canopy, adding a certain ‘atmosphere’ to the woods.
Where oaks are more prevalent, the canopy opens, allowing a glimpse of blue sky and sunlight. If you look closely, you’ll notice that some of the limbs seem fuzzy, and in a sense they are.

The limbs are covered in resurrection fern, one of three fern species on the refuge. An epiphyte that uses the trees for support while gaining nutrients from sunlight, air, and rain, the fern grows on the upper side of the live oak branches.

Without rainfall, the fern shrivels and appears dead; it can lose as much as 75 percent of its water content during typical dry periods. After a good rain, it rebounds within a day, once again appearing green and healthy. This remarkable ‘resurrection’ gives the plant its name, even though it never actually dies during the process.

Resurrection fern on a live oak limb ~ Pleopeltis polypodioides
Dried fronds of resurrection fern, awaiting rain

Finally, the San Bernard Oak comes into view. Its bifurcated trunk is immense; only the bench provided for visitors at the end of the boardwalk offers some sense of scale.

Given the tree’s size and the tangle of surrounding growth, photographing it in the same way as the Goose island or Colorado County oaks is impossible. On the other hand, the San Bernard Oak’s isolation has kept it safe from humans, just as the forest has helped protect it from storms.

In time, I’ll return to the tree, eager to experience it in a different season. For now, I’m happy to have made its acquaintance. Those whose work established the refuge and allowed the land to return to its natural state deserve to be honored; like the San Bernard Oak, they’re providing a legacy for future generations.

The San Bernard Oak

 

Comments always are welcome.

Prowling Heaven’s Alleyways

Comet Lulin, November 20, 2009  ~ Photograph, Paolo Candy

 

When the Texas Flash Dude provided an update on the travels of Comet Neowise through our skies, my first thought was, “Can I see it?” Theoretically, the answer was ‘yes.” Unfortunately, viewing conditions in my part of the world haven’t been the best, but, with luck and borrowed high-powered binoculars, I hope to find it later this month.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about the last comet I watched: Lulin, a colorful beauty which appeared in 2009. Visible to the naked eye, it drew me outdoors well past midnight to watch from my parking lot. I thought myself alone, until a stray cat I’d befriended came to check on me, and brought me a poem in the process. Cats and comets, it seems, have a few things in common.

 

Watching Lulin

Green-eyed,
aloof,
prowling heaven’s alleyways
with unexpected  grace,
you take your ease on Saturn’s stoop
then roam again in darkness:
an elegant, celestial stray hungry for attention.
Prone beneath your pathway,
curbstone-pillowed, concrete-bound,
I squint to see your tail —
limned in hand-drawn charts —
then trace your route through time
until I feel a tug
and hear the tiny, worried voice.
An earthbound stray has found her friend,
her source of food
and solace,
no longer rising tall against the sky but flattened to the ground,
eyes turned upward,
head inclined as though the victim of a fall.
Green eyes wide,
she nudges hard against my pillowed head,
pushing back dismissive hands.
Importunate,
insistent,
biting and tugging as though to pull me upright by my hair,
she seeks to right her realm
in a universe gone mad.
Leaving the comet to its flight,
I offer consolation to this nearer, living world.
“Look up,”  I murmur,
running fingers through the fur that sparks
and shines like starlight in her eyes.
“A thousand years are passing.
A thousand years have passed.”

 

Comments always are welcome.

Freedoms, Large and Small

Long before the advent of The Weather Channel, weather existed. Metal feed-store thermometers dangling next to mops and buckets on the back stoop recorded summer’s rising temperatures, while pools of imaginary water shimmered above the asphalt: swirling, receding, and evaporating mirages that marked the beginning of summer as surely as any column of mercury.

In midsummer, heavy, breathless nights made sleep impossible. Even the heat-laden trees seemed to murmur and complain as we dragged cots from the house to lay beneath the stars, lured toward dreams by the chirring of unseen crickets.

When the feathery blades of grass began to crispen and brown beneath an unbearable sun, sprinklers appeared:  four revolving metal arms whirling ribbons of water across the lawn with a soft, rhythmic susurration.

We delighted in running and sliding through the water, collapsing into giggles when we miscalculated and collided with a friend. As play grew more exuberant, knees began to skin and occasional howls of protest drowned out our delighted screams. At that point, doors flew open and an adult — a mother, a grandparent, a neighbor — would yell, “You kids stop it now! Go find something else to do.”

Always, there was something to do. We might hop on our bikes and pedal to the corner gas station, where the small glass case overflowed with root beer barrels, Walnettos, and soft, pliable circus peanuts. Candy necklaces, candy cigarettes with tiny pink sugar flames, and Necco wafers were favorites; we bargained for our favorite flavors with the sort of savvy, ruthless determination a commodities trader might envy.

Twice each week, the Bookmobile parked in front of our grade school. In June, we attended Vacation Bible School before heading off to camp to enjoy hikes in the woods and evening campfires. Day camps found us transforming  popsicle sticks and plastic laces into mysterious, inexplicable treasures, or replicating famous paintings with dried-bean mosaics.

In short, summer was a time to explore: to try new things. We learned to throw softballs; to roller-skate; to push a lawn mower. Over time, we took on even greater challenges: walking with a friend to an uptown movie; daring the high dive; or navigating the town’s library stacks on our own.

If we hesitated before pushing new limits, it was our own timidity that held us back rather than the over-protectiveness of parents or caretakers. The rules were general, and common sense prevailed. Wear shoes on a bicycle. Be home by dark. Don’t eat all your candy at once. Never swim alone. Don’t fight. When you do fight, don’t hurt each other.

Beyond that, we were on our own.

The same sense of freedom infused our celebration of summer’s High Holy Day: the 4th of July.  After a morning parade, everyone set aside ball-playing and hopscotch to fold napkins, ice watermelons, or help to set the table. The menu itself was traditional, and the grilled hamburgers, sweet corn, thick-sliced tomatoes still warm from the vine, potato salad, baked beans, and pies that the women produced could have fed a threshing crew.  We ate our fill, leaving what remained on the table for late-comers, or anyone who couldn’t resist just one more spoonful.

If there was risk associated with the abandoned potato salad, we didn’t think much about it, and no one seemed to suffer. For that matter, we didn’t give much thought to possible dangers associated with our evening’s entertainment: boxes of red, white, and blue sparklers waiting to be burned on the front lawn before we headed to the park to watch the town’s fireworks display.

With today’s airwaves filled with a new holiday caution — to avoid combining fireworks with potentially explosive hand sanitizer — I began thinking about the pleasures of those childhood fireworks and remembered an earlier caution issued by a representative of a local hospital who said, rather off-handedly, that no child, under any circumstances, ever should be allowed to hold a sparkler.

By the time she finished listing the possible consequences — a blinded eye, a burned hand, a torched neighborhood — it was possible to imagine a child with a sparkler bringing down the whole of Western civilization.

Certainly restrictions on fireworks — even total bans — are reasonable in areas of drought or high population. However accidental, burning down an apartment complex or half a subdivision doesn’t fall into the category of celebration.

But fireworks safety in the absence of rain or the presence of crowds was not her concern. She meant to discourage every parent, in every circumstance, from allowing their child a traditional pleasure of Independence Day celebrations.

Today, her advice seems a precursor of a phenomenon increasingly obvious in our society: the so-called ‘nannie factor’ — the attempt of self-appointed experts or general busy-bodies to control the behavior of people around them. As C.S. Lewis famously wrote:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busy-bodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end: for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Lewis’s “omnipotent moral busy-bodies” also appear in Ian Chadwick’s essay on conformity. As Chadwick puts it:

Personal agendas do not benefit liberty: they hinder it. Pretty soon it’s dictatorship by committee – committees peopled with well-meaning, dedicated, but unelected members whose goals are to enforce their own personal vision of utopia. They erect increasingly restrictive rules that slowly squeeze the life out of a community and bleed it until it is colourless.

Such concerns may seem far removed from sparklers, sprinklers, and over-the-hill potato salad. On the other hand, as warnings against products and activities multiply daily, I find myself asking: are we in fact becoming a nation of nannies — Lawrence Durrell’s “old women of both sexes” determined to warn one another away not only from legitimate risk, but even from the richness of life?

The nation I love always has been a nation willing to allow its citizens to celebrate and live as they will: worshipping, parading, remembering, reciting, and above all participating in rituals that sparkle and sting like freedom itself.

 

In a world where sprinklers are allowed, might we slip and fall on the water-slicked grass bending beneath our feet? Of course. Could we over-indulge in tainted foods and suffer the consequences? Certainly. Will the sun or sparklers burn; the bicycle tip; the bone break; the puppy nip? No doubt, for anything can happen in a world where nothing is guaranteed. Given the realities of an unpredictable world, we need to exercise both caution and care on behalf of those who live around us.

But too much of the wrong kind of caring can lead to paralysis and disengagement, particularly when what passes for care is little more than an expression of thinly-disguised fear. For those who live in fear of what ‘might’ happen; for those who hunger to control what cannot be controlled; and especially for those who prefer to deny that brokenness, contingency, and pain always will be a part of life, there never will be enough caring.

“Don’t you care about your children?” ask the experts. “Don’t you care about your health?” “Don’t you care about physical security, or the acceptance and approval of others?” Certainly, we care. But we care even more for life and freedom; for speaking with dignity and demanding truth; for celebrating and enjoying the multitude of gifts freely offered by the world.

In truth, when we choose to worry less and participate more, we often discover even the most dire warnings dissolving beneath the summer’s rising warmth. We run through the sprinkler without slipping. The sparklers light up the night like the stars, and the last bit of warm, wilty potato salad gets eaten, just because it’s there.

As the children fall asleep, we tend to them in the darkness as the world itself sighs everyone home: safe, sound, and free as a bird crying through the deep summer night, careless and carefree at once.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Armadillo Whispers

If it weren’t for the Alamo, bluebonnets, longhorn steers, and Willie Nelson, I’ve no doubt the lowly, nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus)  would trundle to the top of the list of Texas icons.

It’s a strange one, this tank-like creature. Named for nine parallel scutes neatly tucked between somewhat larger hip and shoulder scutes, it’s the only armadillo species in North America. Whatever outsiders think of the creature, it’s been granted status as the official small mammal of Texas, and everyone from dry cleaning establishments to bars seems eager to cash in on its popularity.

Austin’s beloved and just slightly weird Armadillo World Headquarters may be gone, but Gary P. Nunn still brings a tear to the eye of displaced Texans everywhere with his plaintive longing to be “Home with the Armadillo,” and more school districts than you might imagine have adopted the animal as a mascot.

Still, drivers on Texas highways sometimes suspect the only armadillos left in the state are dead ones. Most armadillo sightings involve unfortunate creatures who’ve met calamitous ends. You see them everywhere — tipped onto their backs with feet splayed heavenward, tumbled into ditches, or smeared across the concrete.

One reason they’re so often killed along highways is their strange ‘startle reflex.’ They’ll sometimes turn and run when they sense danger, but just as often they’ll use their powerful muscles to launch themselves straight up into the air.

Animal predators find the unexpected behavior so surprising they stop in their tracks, giving the armadillo a chance to scuttle off to safety. Unfortunately, jumping into the air in front of an F-150 isn’t so effective, and another armadillo bites the dust.

They’re better at crossing rivers. Burrowers by nature, they’ve developed an ability to hold their breath for minutes at a time while face-deep in dirt. Confronted by a stream, an armadillo simply takes a deep breath and walks across the bottom. If a river’s too wide for the creature to ford by walking, it fills its intestines with air and starts swimming, having become its own personal flotation device.

Away from the highways, finding a live armadillo is easier than you’d think. Their preference for a diet of ants, beetles, grubs, and spiders means they gravitate toward gardens and lawns, and they’re fond of roaming wooded areas filled with moisture and decay.

Armadillo stalking can be great fun. Their hearing and sense of smell are highly developed, but their eyesight is poor. If you happen upon one browsing for dinner and remain very, very quiet, you can walk up to it from behind, reach down, and grab it at the base of its tail.

What’s next is up to you. Catch-and-release is the best option, although some people have taken it home for dinner. During the Great Depression, East Texans frequently ate the creatures, calling them ‘Hoover hogs’ — a reference to the President they blamed for the Depression and a nod to the armadillo’s pork-like flavor.

Over the years, armadillo chili gained favor. At Apelt’s Armadillo farm in Comfort, Texas, you could have armadillo barbeque, sold from this little stone building at the side of the road.

 

Charles Apelt, a German immigrant who came to this country in the late 1800s, didn’t begin by cooking armadillo. Instead, his background in wicker furniture-making and basketry, combined with an unexpected new-world experience, launched a unique and remarkable Texas business.

One day, while walking about his farm, a strange little animal sprang up and began to hop away. Mr. Apelt picked up a stone and with excellent aim hit the animal’s head. Otherwise, the plated armor would have turned the missile aside, like the armor on a battleship.
When he gathered up his game he surveyed it with wonder. When he went out to tack that hide to the barn in some sort of fashion, the hot sun had dried it until it began to curl up. He picked it up and instinctively he said, “Basket.” Then he fastened the end of the tail to the head and made a handle… As it dried he shaped it with his hand, and lo, the first armadillo shell basket that the world ever knew became a reality.
Charles Apelt on the steps of his showroom at the Armadillo Farm

After perfecting a way to preserve the hides, Apelt opened his factory in 1898 and sold 40,000 baskets in the first six years. Plain baskets cost $2.50, while fancier versions sold for $4 and up.

Human creativity being what it is, the Apelts soon began innovating. Customers could purchase fringed or unfringed floor lamps, table lamps, bed lamps and wall fixtures – all made from armadillo shells. As production peaked in the 1920s, fifty hunters were employed to supply the critters, and at least a cook or two was hired to turn all that meat into barbeque.

As demand for their novelty grew, the Apelts supplemented the supply of armadillos provided by hunters by actually “farming” the creatures in an elaborate series of concrete burrows and tunnels built into their front yard. Not all became baskets — many were sold to zoos, medical research facilities and private individuals seeking an unusual pet.

The family owned the business for seven decades. After Charles’s death, his second wife Martha took it over until her death. Daughter Ruth Dowdy assumed control in 1947 and moved the operation to Salado, Texas, but it returned to Comfort in 1951.

At that point, Apelt’s daughter-in law Kathryn took over, continuing the traditions of the farm and producing the same baskets and shades that had made it famous, shipping them to shops and individual customers world-wide.

This vintage advertising card shows a display of Apelt products on one side, and a snippet of explanatory text on the other:

Published by Chas. Apelt, Wholesale and Retail dealer in Original Armadillo Baskets, Colored Souvenir Postals, Comfort, Texas.
Its shell or armor is fashioned into pretty and novel baskets, suitable for cut flowers and hanging baskets. The shells are also lined on the inside with bright colored silk, making very beautiful work baskets for the use of the ladies.

Sybil Sutherland of Kerrville remembers her aunt, Vida Lowrance, working for the Apelts.

She would line the armadillo baskets with bright colored satin, the kind of colors you don’t usually see anywhere else. Lots of kids around here would go out and catch armadillos and sell them for a quarter apiece to the farm, and put them in tow sacks. They caught them by the thousands! I went out with them sometimes, too, with a boy named Paul Harbin. Even though he used a crutch, he was usually ahead of us all.”

Clyde Beaver remembers being one of the kids who hunted them, and the need for finesse.

You had to be careful not to pull them too hard by the tail, or you’d yank it off,” he said. “If they got down into a hole, you’d have to just pull on them gently, and get them out little by little.

Just as an aside, it’s worth noting that, had the Apelt Family started their business in the Pleistocene era, they might have been able to expand their offerings even farther.

The Gylptodon, one of the biggest ancient armadillos and an ancestor of our Texas cutie, originated in South America before moving northward, perhaps as far as Texas. Like the nine-banded armadillo, it was well-armored, with a dome-shaped body, a helmet-like head, and bony rings around its tail.

Glyptodons survived well into early historical times, going extinct about 10,000 years ago, Huge and slow-moving, they probably were hunted to extinction by early humans, who no doubt favored them not only for food but also for shelter. Evidence exists that early South American natives sheltered from snow and rain under Glyptodon shells — shells roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Today, cottage industries based on nine-banded armadillos have become extinct as the Glyptodon, and the Apelts’ Armadillo Farm is due for more changes. Several owners have held the property since the business closed in 1971, but thanks to antique dealer Harriet Gorman of Comfort, Texas, and her late husband Bill, the house and its outbuildings were brought back to life.

The old Armadillo Display Room (where Charles Apelt is shown sitting, above) became a three-room cottage: serving as a home for Harriet during two years of the restoration process.

The newest addition to the property, a Texas State Historical Marker, was sponsored by Walter Apelt, Charles’ grandson. Conveniently placed for inspection by the antiquers and vacationers who frequent the area, it provides a brief introduction to the complex and interesting story.

Tonight, the glyptodons are gone. The hunters with their dogs have disappeared into the darkness; the basket-shapers and lamp-makers, seamstresses and cooks have faded into the hills.

With the restoration of the house completed, passers-by who notice the sign  stop for photographs, and ponder what they cannot understand. In the little stone house by the road, barbeque has been replaced by memories of Hill Country life — the pungent, smoky taste of meat exchanged for the taste of another time.

Amid these implacable changes, the armadillo still roams. Burrowing in peace along the moonlit banks of the Guadalupe, foraging amidst the sweet, bending grasses, rooting up bits of history embedded into the banks of its ancestors’ creeks, it murmurs to itself as it passes.

Perhaps it remembers. Perhaps not. Disappearing into the damp, moonlight-soaked earth, it leaves behind only the faintest tracing of life along the trails of the night — the whisper of the armadillo.

Comments are welcome.
For  my encounter with an actual armadillo,  seeThere’s No Place Like Homeon Lagniappe.