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Michelle Newby is contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and blogger at www.TexasBookLover.com. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist.
Shelley Armitage is professor emerita of English and American studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her numerous publications include Bones Incandescent: The Pajarito Journals of Peggy Pond Church and John Held, Jr.: Illustrator of the Jazz Age.
University of Oklahoma Press
Hardcover, 978-0-8061-5162-5 (ebook also available), 216 pgs., $24.95
February 15, 2016
Out of sorts as her mother ages and her brother falls ill, learning “what it means to be in a space between what something was and what it is becoming,” Shelley Armitage embarks on what she calls the “summer of hikes,” looking to the land she loves to ground her. A handsome volume that includes historical as well as contemporary photographs, Walking the Llano: A Texas Memoir of Place is her exploration of, meditation on, and homage to her home—the place where she grew up and has always returned to, searching for a place for women amid the cowboys—the Llano Estacado.
Armitage grew up in Vega, a tiny farming community in the western panhandle of Texas, and on Armitage Farms, her family’s two sections of land just outside of town. She is interested in how place shapes us and how we best fit into that landscape, looking for continuities in the places made by time and space, between before and after.
Armitage feels that time is compressed in the Texas panhandle. The end of the Old West and the “burgeoning wind energy generation are separated by a little more than one hundred years.” She explores still-discernible bison trails and archaeology sites; hunts for and discovers fossils, petroglyphs, and hidden springs; thrills to each wildlife sighting—golden eagle, mule deer, porcupine, pronghorn antelope, bobcat—and notes the health of cottonwood, willow, mesquite, and cholla; marvels that “the color, shape, texture, and attitude of the rocks signal the movement of wind, water, gravity” in striations of ochre, purple, and orange.
The Llano bears little resemblance now to the short-grass prairie traversed by the Antelope Creek Phase peoples and “discovered” by the Spanish. The “sea of grass” has been permanently altered by “sheep, cattle, farming, strip mining, oil, gas exploration, feed lots, dairies, microwave and cell phone towers, and now wind turbines,” she observes. Armitage regrets altering the prairie ecology further even as she signs the contracts to allow wind turbines and transmission towers to be built. She explains the “dewatering” of the Ogallala from wells, irrigation, evaporation and the rate of recharge and mourns the “paleowater.”
Armitage discusses imagist poets and then proves to be one herself. “The side oats grama wave like sailboat flags, their tiered semaphores flexed in the wind. Scaton is stately by comparison, its undulating trunk bearing a sparkler-shaped burst of seeds. Buffalo hugs the ground, short-legged like its namesake.”
“Biophilia” is a field of study which “posits that certain kinds of landscapes may attract us as a result of our evolutionary past.” I know this is true whenever I travel to East Texas and get claustrophobia from the trees. A West Texas girl, I need to be able to see the sky and, preferably, the horizon. Quoting Nora Tilden (“places … pretend to be blank, though beneath the surface if everything that has ever happened there”) and Apache elders (“being conscious of the storied place, of all that has gone before it, of the natural layers and the membranes laid down through time.”), Armitage inspires us to become part of the landscape.
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