A land of subtle beauty: A review of Llano Estacado

 

Llano Estacado: An Island in the Sky
Edited by Stephen Bogener and William Tydeman
192 pages, hardcover: $45. Texas Tech University Press, 2011.

The Llano Estacado is a featureless plain, punctuated by canyons, that covers much of west Texas and eastern New Mexico. In the early 19th century, this sea of grass supported millions of bison, and the Comanche ruled it as "lords of the Plains." But in just a few decades, settlers and adventurers killed off the bison, breaking the back of Comanche power. Today, the Llano is dry, ragged farmland, planted mostly in cotton, with an endless thirst for water that isn't there. It's a region defined by entropy and locked in cultural and economic struggle, a place most people hurry through on their way to anywhere else.

A new book of essays and photographs, Llano Estacado: An Island in the Sky, sees all this and something more: a land of subtle beauty, mysterious presences and a kind of quiet courage. Editors Stephen Bogener and William Tydeman asked a handful of Western writers to consider the region in light of images created by Texas and New Mexico photographers. Photos by Peter Brown, Rick Dingus and Miguel Gandert accompany essays by Rick Bass, Barry Lopez and Annick Smith, among others. The essays cover a lot of ground in form and subject. William Kittredge writes about his friendship with Texas novelist Max Crawford, while Bass responds directly to the photographs he examines. Lopez draws a longer arc, considering the Llano in light of 21st century problems, a place that may help us re-evaluate "the impact humanity has had on the Earth" so that we may "ask each other what matters."

This is not just a book of essays illustrated by photographs, or a book of photographs filled out with a few arty essays. The two elements are inseparable, much the way an opera's libretto is interwoven with its music. Stephen Graham Jones' contribution, "What You Can Remember," reads as if it's a photo album of his boyhood memories. And Peter Brown's photograph, "Storm," tells the history of the Llano without a word, in the juxtaposition of green grass and plowed field under bruised-looking skies. Bogener's excellent title essay, a history of the area, brings story and historical photos together, creating a vivid microcosm of the larger work.

This is a beautiful book, and as Tydeman writes, it summons us to "a loving recovery" of the Llano. That's a start for this landscape in need of care.