This year, on the 11th day of spring, I went back to the Middle Bosque canyon and walked down it for the first time in 43 years. I wanted to see how much it had changed. The canyon lies in the quietest corner of central Texas's McLennan County, with bare, fenced farmland rolling for miles on either side. As a canyon it isn't much—half a mile wide, about 150 feet deep, its river, the modest Middle Bosque, wandering from side to side between limestone bluffs. But the 10-mile stretch of it that I used to know was a reservoir of plants and animals that you certainly couldn't find in the wheat fields and pastures above.
No one lives in the canyon. Various farmers own it, but they dwell above it, on the prairie, safe from floods. Most of them are the descendents of the men who owned these fields before World War II; they're so solidly settled on their land that they've never sold out to the big money from Dallas or Houston, which would have brought in bulldozers and changed everything. I did find changes along the river. But they were few—and maybe even for the better.
Lonnie Allen, 28, a native of Cheraw, Colo. who now lives in Texas, walked down the canyon with me. We left his Jeep at one end of the stretch of the river, drove my car to a farmhouse at the other end and started walking. It was a damp morning. The grayness in the air seemed neither fog nor mist, just drab air that obscured the sun.
In the last little pasture before we started down to the canyon floor, four whitetail does watched us. Heads up, motionless, they were so alike that they might have been quadruplets, which are not impossible with deer. They ran away into some woods, leaping in high arcs and in perfect unison. Four porpoises couldn't have done it better.
At our starting point a gravel road lowers itself into the canyon and immediately climbs out again, after crossing the Bosque on a one-lane-wide block of concrete that's almost as much dam as bridge. A single round hole lets the river through. We stood on this bridge and looked downstream. The river was low and sluggish and clear, with alternating pools and rapids among white gravel bars. The woodland floor was 20 feet higher on either side. In the trees to our right a Jeep track wound away downstream. We followed it. You find such stretches of crude dirt road in the canyon, used by hunters and people chain-sawing wood.
The spring leaves were out in a dozen shades of green. Patches of wild flowers, pink and lemon yellow and blue, were scattered in the glades. Cardinals were calling birdy-birdy-birdy, as if following instructions from A Field Guide to the Birds of Texas. Sometimes they showed themselves, bright red among the small green leaves.
Boulders have come loose and rolled down from the canyon rim and now lie among the trees. We came to one roughly the size and shape of a Sherman tank. I recognized it. Beside it, in 1940, my father and I found a pile of 37 squirrel tails. In the Depression years men fed their families any way they could. The canyon has assorted oaks and native pecan trees that grow as high as 100 feet tall. But today we saw no squirrels in them, and only one nest. At the moment raccoons are numerous in these woods, and the squirrel population has declined. "That suits me all right," a young trapper told me. "Coonskins are worth $30 apiece."
There are three Bosque rivers—North, Middle and South. They are graded in size from the smallest in the south, and they all flow together into an area now covered by drab, artificial Lake Waco. Bosque means woods in Spanish. The Spaniards, who passed through this area centuries ago, named all the major rivers of Texas and many lesser ones: Colorado, Brazos, Pecos. American settlers who arrived in the 19th century did a fairly pedestrian job on what was left: Hog Creek, Harris Creek, Elm Creek, etc.
We crossed a 40-acre pasture in the canyon, flat and smooth and as green as Ireland. Heavy machinery had cleared out the woods, leaving only scattered pecan trees to provide shade for livestock. Several farmers have opened such areas. Some of the pastures, where tall and elegant cedar elms have been left uncut, are as handsome as a private park in England. Their backdrop is limestone bluffs—the canyon walls.
Lonnie, who likes hunting deer and elk, signaled me to stop. We heard a light crashing in some brush up ahead, and then two deer crossed ahead of us and moved out of sight and hearing. We'd already seen a number of deer blinds and should have kept count throughout the day. Were there 15, or 25? Some were crude, made from old doors and other junk. A fancy one we looked into had shag carpeting, a cushioned chair, a shelf for thermos jugs and other comforts. Thirty yards in front of it an automatic deer feeder hung in a tree. In season, a timing device releases pellets or grain to bring the animals within easy range.