September 27, 2013
Dr. Will Godwin - Curator
Yegua Country, at the edge of East Texas.
Many of the visitors and associates of the ETNH are familiar with the large collection of paintings by Dan Lay that line the hallways upstairs and down. Those paintings are the original inspiration for our efforts to hitch art and science together. Our mission is to create a sense of place and we will use any means necessary; even botany. That is why we have an art gallery in the natural history collection.
Lay was the first Texas-grown wildlife biologist. He had a career stretching temporally from 1936 to 2002 but geographically not so extensive. His boyhood home on the banks of the Neches River in Beaumont is not far from his last residence in Nacogdoches. He was a regionalist; someone who spends a very long time looking at the changes in one place.
What is the value of a sense of regionalism? Why seek belonging in a landscape? Why do we promote deep regionalism to our students? The concept of self is cousin the sense of place. A sense of belonging and kinship is prerequisite to caring about our fellow people and environment. These are nice abstract ideas but occasionally they manifest in sudden understanding. It can come in a flash.
While driving home, late and tired from Austin to Nacogdoches, we took the old comfortable route through Elgin and Lexington. I have passed this way for almost 20 years noticing something new about the land every time.
Horace Burke taught me the way to Austin through sandy country that looked like East Texas; even smelled like it. In fact it really is the place where East Texas comes up right to Austin's doorstep. Here in Lee County, at the headwaters of confusing branches of Yegua Creek, we find the western limit of country that stretches east all the way to Louisiana. You get the feeling that you might just see the capitol from a high hill or the Yegua Knobs. The smell of sandyland plants like beebalm, goatweed and bitterweed drift through the car window in the valley of the Yegua.
The origins of the name Yegua are not documented. Stephen F. Austin's 1835 map of Texas is the first mention of the Rio Yegua, although earlier hints come to us from the commandante of Fort Tenoxtitlan. Yegua is not the only Spanish name in the area. Three confluencing streams there have Spanish names dating from 1835: "Yegua", "Olmos" and "Nuncio". In 1830 Commandante Francisco Ruiz referred to the Nuncio in one of his first reports. So we know at least some of the Spanish names ante-date Austin's map. And we know reports from Ruiz made their way to Austin's papers because they are still there. Ruiz reported American "rovados" had been lost there, near the headwaters of the Arroyo de Nuncio. Onlytheir hats and rifles and other trifles were found in the possession of local Caddo and Hasinai. So perhaps the name, Yegua comes from the commandante who founded that short-lived military outpost, Fort Tenoxtitlan in 1830. Anyway, the name stuck and we find it common in land documents and newspapers shortly after Austin's map became available. But, the origin of this stream's name is still mysterious
Yegua is Spanish for mare. The best that historians can say is that the area was known for foaling mustangs in the 1830s. Here just west of the Brazos River near Caldwell, the countryside is post oak savannah with flowery meadows that would have been good grazing. A little farther North, botanist Thomas Nuttall guided by pioneer Martin Varner, visited similar habitat in 1819. There at the edge of the woods in Lamar County they collected plants on what Nuttall later explained was the "horse prairie". It too was named for herds of wild horses that frequented it.
The Yegua emerges from springs in the Carrizo and Sparta Sands, ancient sandy coastlines that run east of Austin to Texarkana. Strangely, the Neches River flowing past Lay's boyhood home in Beaumont also starts in seeps near Canton from these same sands. The soils of those ancient beaches cause East Texas to be framed with an ornate western border officially called the Post Oak Savannah. We do not know Lay's inspiration for painting scenes on the Upper Yegua, but it is nice to speculate. People who travel from deep East Texas to Austin are often struck by the dramatic nature of the changing vegetation. They discover there is a sky and see where the beautiful bluebonnets grow. Crossing the Yegua country is something of a rite for observant East Texans passing into the west. It is a goodbye to many familiar species before entering the blackland prairie and then the hill country. It is wide-open, unlike the skyless forests to the east.
The young Dan Lay would have been impressed by entering this new habitat. During the 1930's Lay's mentor, Walter P. Taylor took him west on collecting trips to start accumulating new mammal and bird collections for Texas A&M University. They would have crossed this area while talking about animals and plants.
The transition would have been striking to a Beaumont boy. Later when Lay headed wildlife research in East Texas' Region 1, he would have crossed this land often on business trips to Austin. Then as head of the wildlife division during the war years he would have crossed it going home in the other direction. Something about the area must have impressed him. He painted it at least twice...painted the same place over and over. We know the locality because the title on the back says "Along the Yegua Creek" These paintings hang in the hallway of the museum side by side. I see them several times a day as I move around the museum. They are paintings. The artist is dead eleven years. They never change. But somehow they do. What I see in them changes and it reminds me how you can drive the same road every day and suddenly it looks different because you learned something about geology or botany. Your perspective changed. So the artist is not alone in choosing the perspective. It is an active process; a partnership between the painter and viewer.
So imagine my surprise, driving quietly east on FM 696 with time for thoughts to wander, Tired, sleeping kids in the back seat, worn-out from a day running all over the granite Capitol and swimming in cold Barton Springs and examining UT's fish collection with the cookie cutter shark and new American eel and pilgrimages to Kerby Lane and Threadgill's.
And there it was. There was the painting on the museum wall. A-ha, somehow I have driven the car into that canvas. One quick look around and 180 back to the spot. Botanists do this all the time or just stop in the middle of the highway. Sleepy heads all roll sideways and wake-up. What's daddy doing now? Are we going back to the Capitol? Well they are used to it.
There was a gate hidden in a small gap in the roadside trees. A little farther was a bridge over some diverse branch of the Yegua. No shoulder. Only one small place to pull off. Clearly it was a good spot for a painter to pull off the narrow, dangerous road and study a scene. It was about the only place to do so. I didn't even need to get out of the car. I had found it. There was the spot "Along the Yegua Creek". Judge for yourself. I am satisfied and I will never look at the paintings in the museum hallway the same way again.
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