The adventures of a Dallas Morning News columnist were the inspiration behind Walt Davis’ love for the landscape of Texas. About 50 years after, Davis along with his wife Isabel took the same route around Texas that Frank X. Tolbert took with his son Frank Jr. in 1955.
The story of the Davises’ travels around Texas were chronicled in their book, “Exploring the Edges of Texas.” The Davises will be at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge in Sherman on Saturday to sign books and give people information on the vast and changing landscapes around Texas.
“As a 13-year-old boy, I read the articles Tolbert wrote about that trip and vowed to repeat the adventure when I grew up,” Walt Davis said. “I found a way to keep that promise when my wife, Isabel and I set on our own trip around the state.”
Walt Davis’s favorite place was a sojourn into the foothills of the Chisos Mountains to a place called Pine Canyon.
“Louis Agassiz Fuertes had been there in 1901 as the official artist of a U. S. Biological Survey expedition,” he said. “Fuertes, a recent graduate of Cornell University, had written letters from the expedition campsite in Pine Canyon to his parents back home. He included a sketch of the view from the expedition’s campsite in Pine Canyon where he and his colleagues recorded five species of birds never before recorded in the U.S. With a copy of the letter in hand, we compared the sketch to the unfolding vista before us until we stood in the exact spot where Fuertes and colleagues had camped. The letter home said, ‘it makes me long to have some power to get your senses … down here to help me hold it.’ His parents never made it, but we did.”
Before publishing their exploratory book in 2010, Walt and Isabel Davis were not new to Texas natural history. Walt Davis is an art teacher and museum consultant. He is also a former director of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon and the former curator of exhibits at the Dallas Museum of Natural History.
“One of the biggest changes we documented was the demise of the long leaf pine forest in Texas,” Walt Davis said. “U.S. Biological Survey scientist Vernon Bailey called it ‘the cleanest, most uniform, and symmetrical body of pine to be found on the continent.’ Relentless cutting leveled that forest in the first three decades of the 2oth century. When Isabel and I set out to find at least a remnant of that once magnificent forest, Newton County nature guide said, ‘there may be a few old timbers in the woods, but no significant stands of virgin timber.’”
Isabel Davis is a former director of Rockwall County Library and a Richardson Public Library former collection development librarian. She retired from West Texas A&M University where she was a reference librarian.
“She would say that her favorite segment of the border was the lower canyons of the Rio Grande,” Walt Davis said.
The three sites that should be on everyone’s bucket list to see, Walt Davis said, are the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park, the basin in Guadalupe National Park and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
“To float the Rio Grande is to experience raw nature in the company of guides whose love of wild places is palpable and whose culinary skills will keep the body nourished while the spirit is renewed,” he said. “Hiking into the Guadalupe high country is to step back in time. The Chihuahuan Desert has been creeping north out of Mexico like a rising tide forcing the original woodland to retreat to higher, more moist elevations in mountain ranges like the Guadalupes at the rate of a few inches to a foot or more a year for the last 3,000 years.”
Walt Davis said that for each foot of elevation gained on a hike to the basin, you step back a year in time.
“When Columbus discovered the ‘New’ world, the forest around you would have spread all the way to the foot of the mountains and out onto the desert floor beyond,” he said. “A drive through Laguna Atascosa is a chance to sample one of the most biologically rich habitats in all of Texas delicately balanced just a few feet above rising sea level. Neotropical birds wandering north our of Mexico make it an ornithological magnet drawing bird enthusiasts from all over the world.”
Here you can see the drama of extinction in action, he said.
“As the endangered Ocelot lives out the final years of residence in Texas, brown pelicans fly up and down the coast in stately formations brought back from the brink of extinction by determined conservationists,” Walt Davis said.
While the border of Texas is one of the most widely recognized shapes in geography, Walt said, the border is also longer than the Amazon River. He said that driving every twist and turn of Texas is like driving from Miami to Los Angeles by way of New York. He also said that flying from the Swiss Alps to the mountains of Afghanistan would cover no greater distance than a journey along the edge of Texas.
Knowledge and appreciation come first when it comes to preserving the natural heritage of the state of Texas, Walt Davis said.
“We can’t preserve and protect what we don’t know or care about,” he said. “Look for places where nature and development live in harmony, learn how that came to be and look for places where success stories can be replicated. The story of the preservation of Buffalo Bayou inspired us as did a visit to Shangri La Botanical Garden in Orange. The growing movement to landscape with native plants adapted to local environments is a step in the right direction as is the increasing effort to encourage earth-friendly building and development practices. Good things are happening all around. Search them out and join the team.”