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Sunday, August 21, 2016


The week before last, I posted a brief but glowing note about Shelley Armitage's Walking the Llano: A Texas Memoir of Place. This week I am delighted to share with you the author's answers to my questions about her lyrical and illuminating memoir of growing up in and later returning to explore the area around Vega, Texas. Vega sits on the Llano Estacado about half way between the eastern New Mexico / Texas border and the Texas Panhandle city of Amarillo. [Click here to see Vega, Texas on the map.] 

As you will see, some of my questions are with my students in mind (I teach literary travel writing and creative nonfiction), while other are apropos of my abiding interest in Texas (my own work-in-progress is on Far West Texas-- next door, as it were, to the Llano Estacado). Whether you are interested in writing travel and personal memoir or learning about this unique yet little known place, I think you will find what Shelley Armitage has to say at once fascinating and informative. 

C.M. Mayo: You have had a very distinguished career as an academic. What prompted you to switch to writing in this more literary and personal genre? 

Shelley Armitage: I haven't really switched but shifted my focus. I've tried in all my previous books to write well and evocatively and they all required research and imagination as a foundation. I never believed that scholarly writing couldn't be readable, even possess literary qualities. But it's true that because I was an academic I was always steered away from personal/creative writing, something I wanted to do from a young age on. 

As I mention in the book, an elementary school friend and I wrote a novel together, a kind of mystery using local characters. When I was young I also admired the writing in National Geographic though I had no idea how to prepare myself to write such. Now as a retiree, I have time (though shortened!!) to explore what I've always yearned to do, though I still struggle to write things that are personal; I am more comfortable as a participant/observer.

C.M. Mayo: In your acknowledgements you mention the Taos Writers Conference and the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico "where the book found a second life." Can you talk about Taos and the book's evolution?

Shelley Armitage: Taos is a special place in terms of environment and history--and many other things. So being in Taos (high desert, mountains, verdant valley) combined with focus on writing was special. I was fortunate to study with BK Loren, a novelist and essayist, at the writers' conference. She gave me permission, through her suggestions and assignments--though not related to the memoir-- to work with narrative in fresh ways.

I came to think about time in terms of what memory does with it, not something chronological. I spent lots of time in the Taos area hiking, just exploring the art scene, talking with other artists (particularly at the Wurlitzer Foundation). I've always found hanging out with other creative people, not writers, to be very stimulating and fun. Ditto looking at art, attending musical events, etc.

At the Wurlitzer I was able to get a rough draft. A couple of years later when I studied with BK, I went home and started again. 

C.M. Mayo: Which writers and works would you say have most influenced you in writing Walking the LlanoYou mention Southwest poet Peggy Pond Church and Southwest writer Mary Austin, as well as contemporary writers, including Rudolfo Anaya, Patricia Hampl, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Barry Lopez's writers retreat. Can you talk about some of these influences? 

Shelley Armitage: As a scholar I worked with the writings of both Austin and Church. I was Church's literary editor, worked with her until her death, and helped get her books published posthumously. 

Austin I knew from research I've done on women in the West, once (and maybe still) an incredibly under-researched and represented woman of Western writing and history.

Both women were extremely talented and independent but also faced assumptions about women's "place" at the time and credibility as writers. Austin did claim the tag feminist, though Church denied it. I think I saw in their talent and their battles something of myself. After all, when I received my Ph.D in 1983, someone in the English Department actually asked me if I intended to get a job with it.

The same perhaps ironically is true for Silko and Anaya, both writers whom I've taught with great enthusiasm and deep appreciation, both ground-breaking writers in a time when writers of color had a difficult time getting published. I don't mean to politicize their work but simply to point out their contribution to establishing a canon of work not available for my generation when we were students. 

Rudy also writes about the llano and Leslie will forever be influential for writing Ceremony and most recently her memoir. 

Patricia Hampl I've never met, unfortunately, but her memoirs are among the best in the genre, in my opinion. She is a seamless writer, moving among time periods, places, memories. A beautiful storyteller.

And Barry Lopez who led a writer's retreat, the first I ever attended, is a well-known "nature" writer. I like best his short stories which I've also written about. Though I am writing creative nonfiction, each of these writers has impressed me through their use of so-called fictional elements. That can be the beauty of nonfiction. These elements can make a memoir sing.

C.M. Mayo: Do you have any favorite literary travel / creative nonfiction books / writers? 

Shelley Armitage: I really don't have any favorites. I read lots of contemporary fiction (much of it immigrant writers or international writers in translation) and am drawn to books like Sally Mann's recent autobiography in which she uses photographs. 

I've written a lot on photography and find thinking about photos as connected to creating memorable but subtle images in writing. As a critic I've written some essays speculating on how photography connects with story, such as one on the photographs of Eudora Welty, called "The Eye and the Story."

C.M. Mayo: Any favorite Texan books / writers?

Shelley Armitage: I really haven't kept up with "Texas" writers as such. I don't think about writers in this category. Frankly, I tried to talk University of Oklahoma Press out of using the word Texas in my subtitle of Walking. For me, the book was about a geographic area, not a state. 

I often don't think of myself being in a state when I am in Texas but rather in a place which may or may not have commonalities with other places. That said, I did long ago admire the Texas book, Say Goodbye to a River, also the work of Elmer Kelton as a western writer who was a sage observer of the south plains, and occasionally the work of writers for Texas Monthly.

C.M. Mayo: Not many people outside of Texas have heard of the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains, and yet it is an area bigger than New England and of considerable historical and ecological importance. Why do you think that is? (And how do the people who live there pronounce Llano Estacado?) 

Shelley Armitage: Sad to say, many Texans neither know the area nor how to pronounce it!!! It is Spanish, so llano is yano, with a soft "a," and estacado, just as it's spelled. I think most contemporary folk do not know much about geography, either in the present or historically.

I've found people who know most about the llano have spent time living within it (or on it?); cowboys, ranchers, local historians, wildlife biologists, etc. The llano suffers the same fate as most of the southwest except for the popularized places like Santa Fe: it's rural, not sublime (except in some of our eyes), and appears boring unless one can get off the main highways. 

That's actually not true if you are a lover of big skies and boundless horizons. It can appear inconsequential if identifying everything according to urban human life is most important. 

And yes, most pronounce it lano. 

C.M. Mayo: West Texas, which includes the Llano Estacado and the Far West Texas city of El Paso, where you lived for some years, is very different from the rest of Texas. In a sentence or two, what in your experience are the most substantial differences?

Shelley Armitage: In one sense the areas are like ethnic and cultural islands, separated from so-called mainstream Texas both in economics and history. In another sense, in regard to El Paso, there is the everlasting influence of Mexico and Central America.

There's also not the same commercial influences overall, that is, of the kind of characteristics Larry McMurtry might have spoofed. In the west of Texas we are mostly closer to other countries and state capitols than Austin.

[[ El Paso to Austin: 8 hours and 29 minutes ]]
[[ Austin to Vega, Texas: 8 hours ]]

C.M. Mayo: For someone who knows nothing about Texas, but seeks understanding, which would be the top three books you would recommend? 

Shelley Armitage: I'd suggest T.S. Fehrenbach's Comanches: The History of a People, Stephen Harrington's The Gates of the Alamo, and works by Sandra Cisneros.

C.M. Mayo: Ditto, books about the Llano Estacado?

Shelley Armitage: In terms of the llano, I'd recommend John Miller Morris's El Llano Estacado: Exploration and Imagination on the High Plains of Texas; Fred Rathjen's The Texas Panhandle Frontier; and Rick Dingus's forthcoming Shifting Views and Changing Places (a photographic collection with focus on the llano). I have an essay in Dingus's book called "On Being Redacted," which addresses his depiction of space, place, etc.

C.M. Mayo: One of the things I especially appreciated about Walking the Llano is your eye for the detail of the deep past-- rock art, arrowheads, potsherds, some many thousands of years old, and how earlier peoples inhabited the landscape not as square feet measured off with a fence, but as a shape. And the Llano Estacado is shaped by draws-- what people elsewhere would call a creek bed or an arroyo. The draw you focus on is the Middle Alamosa Creek. Having written this book, your eye for the shape of a landscape-- any landscape-- must be far sharper. Am I right? If so, can you give an example?

Shelley Armitage: Thanks for mentioning this! I have always liked Mary Austin's comment that to appreciate the desert, you needed "a noticing eye." The draws that become the Middle Alamosa Creek are my so-called backyard and yet I was amazed to discover what had transpired there. Spending time, listening, looking, being open to discovery I think is important wherever we find ourselves.

Right now I am in the Chihuahuan desert and very interested in learning more and perhaps writing about it. In Poland, I spent lots of time walking and looking, going into the forests that bordered Warsaw. 

In fact, I think being conscious of shapes, as you say, rather than man-made or distinguished borders can awaken us to a different kind of understanding of how we are part of these environments. It's a kind of personal ecology.

I like to look without language, by which I mean a kind of openness before we name something and thus categorize it. 

C.M. Mayo: Popular imagery of Texas often differs immensely from reality, and yet at the same time, in so many instances, stereotypes and reality intertwine, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes ironically, perhaps playfully. For example, the other day I happened to visit the website of the vast La Escalera Ranch and, as I recall, one of the videos was playing the theme song to the movie "Giant." In Walking the Llano you mention that, a child growing up in Vega, you were "steeped in the cowboy films of my childhood...Dale Evans... Roy Rogers... Then there were Gene Autry and The Lone Ranger, which led to records, sheet music, and magic rings." Later you write, "In elementary school, I kept writing about the other Wests, as if they were more important than my own." In this regard, what do you see happening for children in Vega, Texas, and similar places, now?

Shelley Armitage: I'd like to think the kids in Vega could revel in the mixture of fact and fantasy in a state and on a llano fairly amazing! And I was hopeful when I had the chance to speak to a 4th grade class at Vega schools about my book. I used a Power Point of some of the photos in the book, but of course in much more gorgeous color.

They responded with great questions about the flora and fauna mainly, but when I asked if any of them realized this canyon country existed just north of town, only one little boy said "Ma'am, I live out on one of those ranches." Everyone else seemed clueless, happy to connect the area with something else they knew, but not familiar with it themselves. 

I think their world is more daily defined as Stars Wars or Frozen and of course through that little object influencing us all, the cell phone. Viewing the world through frames, television, computer screens, cell phones is no doubt more defining than the big star their parents put on their houses. 

Do they consider themselves "Texans"? I would guess yes, when the situation calls for it. Still when I was a kid I think I was more aware of being a westerner than a Texan. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Strangely Beautiful Sierra Madera Astrobleme (What is an Astrobleme?)

[[ Sierra Madera Astrobleme. Photo by C.M. Mayo. ]]
As those of you who have been following this blog know, I am at work on a book about Far West Texas and, apropos of that, hosting the Marfa Mondays Podcasting Project. So in addition to reading about Far West Texas and related subjects, and interviewing artists and many other interesting people, I've been doing a heap of driving all over the place out there. 

Driving east or west on I-10 or I-20 or 90 is to barrel along with the steady flow of big rigs, pickup trucks, RVs and SUVs; driving north-south, on the other hand, it gets very lonely, very strange, very fast.

Here is a photo* I took with my iPhone through the windshield while heading south on US-385 from Fort Stockton to Marathon. That jumble of hills over to the left is the Sierra Madera, which sits on the vast La Escalera Ranch, one of the largest ranches in Texas. Although I did not know it at the time, the highway was about to blaze me right through the Sierra Madera Astrobleme.

[*Normally I would never fool around with my smartphone while driving, but I had been driving out here for sometime and not seen a single vehicle, in either direction. I daresay I could have taken got out of the car and taken a siesta in the middle of the road.]

[ Sierra Madera Astrobleme ]

[ Sierra Madera Astrobleme,
off US-385 etween Fort Stockton and Marathon, Texas ] 

The Sierra Madera is indeed on Google maps, but neither of the maps I carried with me that day, the AAA and the Geological Highway Map of Texas, noted it, so I was wholly unprepared for the sight, on the open plains, well before the Glass Mountains, of the strange-looking huddle of the Sierra Madera off to the east--  and all bathed in the golden-orange glow of sunset. Alas, my photo does not do its stunning gorgeousness a shred of justice. 

It turns out that the Sierra Madera is an extremely rare "cryptoexplosion structure," in this case, a crater with a central mountain range raised not by volcanic or tectonic forces, but by the rebound from the impact of an unknown extraterrestrial object. The mountains and the approximately 6 mile-in-diameter crater, so eroded over some nearly 100 million years that I did not recognize it as I drove through it, are together known as the Sierra Madera Astrobleme. 

An astrobleme is an eroded remnant of a large crater made by the impact of a meteorite or comet. The term, first used in the mid-20th century, is from the Greek astron, star, and blema, wound. 

What was that object that slammed into the earth those nearly 100 million years ago? I have been searching the literature and have yet to come upon any description beyond "approximately spherical."

What was going on 100 million years ago? This would have been the Late Cretaceous or Early Tertiary, when Tyrannosaurus roamed and Quetzalcoatlus northropi, a pterosaur the size of a small jet airplane, cast his shadow from overhead. (Seems the flora and fauna had a few more million years to go... 66 million years ago came Chicxulub and the great extinction.)

The literature I could Google up on the Sierra Madera Astrobleme has a great deal of detail on shatter cones and various types of rock, as well as gravitational and magnetic anomalies. But as for a description for the layman, or shall we say, the average Tyrannosaurus Rex, of what the impact might have sounded like and how it might have affected the atmosphere, or caused mega-tsunamis, no dice. Undoubtedly, the blast was analogous to some flabbergastingly large quantity of TNT.

Would the Sierra Madera have appeared as an island? It seems that those many millions of years ago the area was then underneath the so-called Western Interior Seaway. The Davis Mountains-- the Texas Alps-- lying beyond the horizon to the northwest, would not emerge until the volcanic frenzy of (gosh, only) 35 million years ago.

Dear reader, if you have more information about the Sierra Madera Astrobleme, please do write.

Informative links:

> "When Texas Was at the Bottom of the Sea" by Olivia Judson, Smithsonian Magazine, January 2015.

University of Texas of the Permian Basin webpage on the Sierra Madera Astrobleme
All the crunchy geology. Plus the hypothetical reconstruction of the event.

> "Hydrocone Modeling of the Sierra Madera Impact Structure" by Tamara J. Goldin et al. Meteoritics and Planetary Science, 2006.

"Geology of the Sierra Madera Cryptoexplosion Structure, Pecos County, Texas" by H.G. Wilshire, et al. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper No. 599, 1972.
Extra-extra-crunchy with shatter cones.

> United States Meteorite Impact Craters: Page on the Sierra Madera Crater
Good variety of photographs and information by Robert Beauford, PhD. He writes: 
"This is one of the largest impact craters in the United States, and even after having worked on 4 to 5 km craters for several years, I found it challenging to take in the scale of the structure.  It defines the shape of the vast, open landscape in every direction."
Purdue University's Impact Earth! Famous Craters page. 
Alas, it does not include the Sierra Madera Astrobleme. But fascinating nonetheless.

> Astronaut's Guide to Terrestrial Impact Craters by R.A.F. Grieve, et al. LP Technical Report Number 88-03, Lunar and Planetary Institute, NASA, 1988
(See Sierra Madera, p. 13.)

P.S. Wiggy synchronicity du jour: Given that the Sierra Madera Astrobleme is near the Glass Mountains, it raised my eyebrows to come upon this webpage with the Ames Astrobleme Museum and the Gloss Mountains of Oklahoma:

> Your comments are always most welcome. Write to me here.
> Newsletter goes out soon-ish. I welcome you to sign up here.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Roundup by Robot

No need to haul around the chuck wagon!

Rounding up cattle on the La Escalera Ranch in Far West Texas, using a Phantom 3 drone:

La Escalera Ranch ("Herding Cattle with a Drone") from Lyda Video & Photo on Vimeo.

Cattle herding in Queensland, Australia, from an article in International Business Times:

Robot-herding cattle in the Azores-- with extremely annoying soundtrack.

Herding sheep by drone in New Zealand: Article in the Daily Mail.

What prompted my interest in this at once esoteric and emblematic rural activity? As those of you who have been flowing this blog know, I am at work on a book about Far West Texas. I spent the weekend transcribing some of my notes from driving around out there, including a spectacular stretch of US-385 heading south at sunset from Fort Stockton to Marathon. Judging from the number of gates out there with the logo that looks like a III, or a small ladder, La Escalera Ranch owns the zone. Hence, the Google, which landed me on their very interesting website with that video of the drone roundup. 

On that note, Kevin Kelly's The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future is a most enlightening read. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 08, 2016


Another fine example of the genre has been added to my frequently updated list of recommended literary travel memoirs: Shelley Armitage's Walking the Llano: A Texas Memoir of Place. 

Armitage's wistful, knowledgable, and lyric memoir may be one of best books ever to come out of the Texas Panhandle.

> Visit Shelley Armitage's website here.

>> Update on the Marfa Mondays Podcasting Project: Ayyyy, I am still working on podcast 21, on the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts. Meanwhile, listen in to the other 20 podcasts anytime here.

>> Your comments are always very welcome. Write to me here.
>> The newsletter goes out soon. I invite you to sign up here.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Mexican Fiction in Translation: Agustín Cadena and Rose Mary Salum in ArLiJo

I am very honored and delighted to announce that the new issue #91 of Robert Giron's ArLiJo features two of my translations of Mexican short fiction: Agustín Cadena's "The Coco" and Rose Mary Salum's "Someone is Calling Me." 

More about Agustín Cadena:

> His blog, El vino y la hiel

More about Rose Mary Salum:

Rose Mary Salum's blog, Entre los espacios

Rose Mary Salum, Founding editor of Literal

A Conversation with Rose Mary Salum (super crunchy)

A Note on the second issue of Origins, edited by Dini Karasik, featuring Mexican writer Rose Mary Salum

A tip of the sombrero to you, my fellow El Pasoan, dear Robert Giron!
Thank you for your long-time support for literary translation!

[[ ¡Viva ArLiJo issue #91! ]]

A Note on Literary Projects & Literary Translation by Yours Truly
Alas, given that there are not 50 hours in the day and 700 days in the year I am not anywhere near ever becoming a full-time literary translator. My main literary projects at the moment are my own book on Far West Texas, and the related podcast series, "Marfa Mondays," but, as I have for many years now, I make it a regular practice to translate Mexican contemporary short fiction and poetry. (My most recent book is about and includes a book I translated-- an exception to my usual translation work on many levels, including the fact that the author was murdered in 1913. That book is Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual.)

As a resident of Mexico City, and a writer and poet myself, I treasure the opportunity to translate my Mexican contemporaries and bring them to English language readers. And I have plenty to say about all that: See "Translating Across the Border," my talk for the 2015 American Literary Translators Association Conference panel on "Translating the Other Side."

At present, I am working on The Water that Rocks the Silence, a collection of linked short stories,  El agua que mece el silencio,  by Rose Mary Salum (three more to go for a complete first draft); a short story by Araceli Ardón (advanced draft); a second short story by Ignacio Solares (rough draft); and poem by Alberto Blanco (draft). Fingers crossed, later this year, I may have some news about a collection of stories by Agustín Cadena. 

Would that the day had more hours!

> For more about my published translations, click here.

> My amiga the poet and writer Pat Dubrava and I both translate Mónica Lavín and Agustín Cadena. Read her post about her visit to Mexico City in her blog, Holding the Light.

Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.
> My newsletter goes out to subscribers soon. I welcome you to join the list here.

Monday, August 01, 2016

THE COMANCHE EMPIRE by Pekka Hämäläinen: A Book Review by C.M. Mayo

The cover of Pekka Hämäläinen's The Comanche Empire, of a ghost-white warrior with a trio of blood-red slashes down his cheek, is as arresting as the argument that, as it opens, the Comanches' was "an American empire that, according to conventional histories, did not exist."

In the United States public discourse conflates wildly heterogenous groups into easy categories— Native American, white, black, and so on and so forth— and then, with school board-approved narratives as mortar, we construct colossal political edifices. In their shadows, alas, many of us are blind to the complexities in our society and history. The complexities are riotous. And when we shine a light on but one of them— as Finnish historian Hämäläinen has in this brilliant study of Comanche hegemony— suddenly our easy categories and well-worn narratives may look strange, deeply wrong.

As those of you who follow this blog well know, I am at work on a book about Far West Texas, that is, Texas west of the Pecos River. Anyone who heads out there, especially to the remote Big Bend, hears about Comanches, e.g., they crossed the Río Grande here, they watered their horses there. But the Comanches, an equestrian Plains people who hunted the buffalo, were latecomers to the Trans-Pecos. They did not settle there; they trekked through it on the Comanche Trail (more aptly, network of trails) on their way to raid in northern Mexico. They returned driving immense herds of horses and kidnapped Apache and Mexican women and children in tow, for markets up north around Taos, New Mexico, and Big Timbers on the Arkansas, which garnered them metal tools, cooking pots, corn and other carbohydrates, textiles, and above all, guns and ammunition.

George Catlin"Buffalo Chase"
The Comanche were raiding south of the Río Grande as early as the 1770s, but their large-scale raiding in northern Mexico commenced in the 1820s, plunging deep into Chihuahua, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Durango, Zacatecas and, in the 1840s, as far as Jalisco and the major central market and manufacturing city of Querétaro. This systematic "mass violence" which left the northern realm of the Mexican economy crippled and its people demoralized, turned it into what Hämäläinen terms "an extension of Greater Comanchería." Hence, by the late 1840s, when the U.S. Army invaded Mexico, what they were really invading was, to quote Hämäläinen, "the shatterbelt of Native American power." But this is to get ahead of the story. 



Those of you have been following my related podcast, Marfa Mondays, may be wondering, where is the long-promised podcast #21 on the Seminole Negro Scouts? 

After the US Civil War, the US Army invited the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts into Texas from Mexico, where they had taken refuge from the Confederacy's slavers, to help clear the Apaches and Comanches out of Texas. So I've been reading about the latter groups, whose history, it turns out, is far more wide-ranging and multifaceted than I had imagined. I may be a fast reader, but this is a monster of a bibliography. Add to that, in 2008, with Pekka Hamalainen's The Comanche Empire, the whole of the paradigm has been upended. 

So stay tuned: by the by, podcast #21 on the Seminole Negro Scouts will be posted. Listen in anytime to the other 20 posted so far here.

>>Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

>> My newsletter might go out sometime soon-ish. I welcome you to sign up here.

[[ Casa Piedra Road, on the Comanche Trail in the Big Bend, Far West Texas]]

[[ Plains Indian Rock Art, Meyers Spring, Far West Texas ]]