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Forty years ago, no deer lived in the canyon. Now there may be too many. "Last fall, I got out of my pickup at four o'clock and killed my deer at four-fifteen," one farmer's son told me. On the north rim of the Bosque, a landowner keeps a 1963 Dodge in the middle of one of his pastures, wheelless, propped on rocks. It's his deer blind. Each fall he sits comfortably on the cushions and shoots a buck out the window. Not for sport; it's a practical chore, like killing a hog.
Around 11 the sun burned off most of the grayness and began to cast shadows. This brought out butterflies—white, yellow and salmon pink. Vultures soared overhead, their long black shadows sweeping back and forth around us on the ground. Vultures are as silent as their shadows. Crows, on the other hand, make most of the woodland's noise.
When I was 17 I shot a bat in the canyon, in daylight, with a 20-gauge shotgun. It tumbled obligingly out of the air and lay on its back in the grass. Its eyes were not on each side, like a bird's, but in front, like a man's. I had not expected a facial expression in a bat. It looked up at me with hatred and great pain. There was so much fierce cognizance in its eyes that I felt it knew my name. Moved by its suffering, I gave up killing animals.
The modern world lies just beyond the rim of the canyon. The kerosene lamps, woodburning stoves and iron wash pots of the 1930s are gone. In their comfortable houses the farmers have everything except cable TV. Some of their tight-stretched modern fences run into the canyon, marking property lines—a change from the rotted cedar posts and rusty barbed wire of 1940.
Lonnie and I climbed up to a rock shelter—a place where a bluff overhangs enough to keep out sun and rain—just under the rim and ate lunch. Indians camped or lived in the better shelters. This one was small, perhaps 60 feet long and 15 feet deep in the middle. There was no sign that it had ever been dug for arrowheads or pots. Until we blackened a couple of rocks with our little fire, there was no sign that anyone had been in the shelter in the 20th century.
I've camped a few nights in the canyon. The darkness is full of hoots and shrieks and splashes in the river. But the sound that keeps you edgy is made by armadillos, rooting in brush and leaves just a few yards from your tent. It's a loud sound, and so close and careless you think no animal smaller than a bear would dare to make it. Actually, the armadillo, whose hearing and eyesight are poor, doesn't know you're there. It's just scratching for beetles and worms and eating them. No camper in northern woods will ever hear this noise. Armadillos, being covered with thin shell instead of fur, are too poorly insulated to make it through a frozen winter. They are immigrants from South America and have already got as far north in this country as the climate will let them go.
As Lonnie and I hiked, I kept looking for a great blue heron. They're the presiding spirits, and perhaps the real owners, of quiet American streams. You can rarely get close to one. They stand in the shallows, almost always alone, and fly away from you with ponderously beating six-foot wings. Once on a long walk down the Bosque I flushed the same heron three times. Twice it lifted silently into the air and went flapping off around a bend, to settle at another pool and resume its fishing. The third time it gave a series of loud, resentful honks and lifted out of the canyon to seek another stream. I had no doubt that its complaints were addressed to me.
The Bosque's best swimming holes aren't in the gravel-choked main river, but in the little creeks that feed it. They run in channels of smooth limestone. As a teenager I used to walk three miles from my grandparents' farmhouse to my favorite—a deep, narrow pool with streaks and strands of cold water rising from springs in the bottom. It was sensory heaven on a hot day.
Then, I didn't know or care who owned the land. Now, in a time of vandalism and motorized cattle rustling, you make inquiries and get permission to wander around. When I went back to the pool recently, it hadn't changed. The water was a milky green, the woods came almost to the edge of the stream and a woodpecker was at work nearby. A hundred yards upstream, cliff swallows had built about 200 mud nests on a stretch of overhanging bluff. Some of the birds swirled overhead. Others—fledglings, perhaps—peered out through the single hole that in each nest serves as entrance, exit and window. Older Texans have a nice name for them: mud martins. You often find small colonies stuck under highway bridges and on the downstream side of high concrete dams. Those near my old swimming hole, on a quiet creek in quiet woods, are living in much better style.
Our destination was the next bridge, 10 miles downstream from where we'd started. The afternoon grew long. We saw a dead fox and then a live cottontail. We smelled a skunk—an old, faded smell. The brush in the woods became thicker, with extra lashings of greenbriar and poison ivy. There were no Jeep tracks. The going was too thick, too scratchy. We took to the stream, wading along the edges of the deep holes, not getting our jeans wet much above the knees.