By Andrew Stuart
For this episode, Nature Notes is teaming up with “West Texas Wonders” – a new reporting series, where listeners ask questions and Marfa Public Radio finds answers. Alan Cox is a Big Spring native.
“One of the deals that I’ve always been curious about are the scrubby mesquite bushes you see all over West Texas,” Cox said. “When did they come along? Growing up, I heard that story that they were not native to West Texas. You look at really old photos of the area, the landscape seems so much more clean and open than it does now in many places, where it’s totally polluted by mesquite.”
It’s been called “the devil with roots” – the thorny bane of cattle, horses and cowhands. Flourishing in the harshest conditions, it edges out other plants. Of course, its very tenacity has also commanded respect. The Texas writer J. Frank Dobie said that he “could ask for no better monument over [his] grave than a good mesquite tree, its roots down deep like those of people who belong to the soil.”
Mesquite is synonymous with Texas, and it dominates the landscape in much of our region.
But has it always been thus?
Today, mesquite flourishes in most of Texas, and there’s no doubt that its presence here is ancient. Native Americans made bread from mesquite beans. And archeologists find that, like barbecue pit masters today, Native peoples favored mesquite wood for cooking.
But just because mesquite is native doesn’t mean it’s not invasive. Michael Nickell is the Sibley Center’s museum scientist.
“First off, mesquite is native here,” Nickell said. “It’s part of the natural landscape. But it used to be restricted to draw sites, and canyonland areas, where it could have more access to water. But it’s spread all over the place now.”
Mesquite’s spread is tied to the destruction of creatures that shaped plains ecology.
Bison herds, millions strong, once grazed the West Texas plains. And the force of those vast, roving herds crushed budding shrubs.
“The bison functioned very much like nature’s lawn mowers and fertilizers,” Nickell said. “They would go on short migrations and they would trample the prairie and keep shrubs from growing. You take bison out of the equation, mesquite has the opportunity to get a foothold.”
Bison weren’t the only creatures driven out. West Texas was once home to half a billion prairie dogs. Prairie dogs depend on unobstructed views, to see predators from a distance and retreat underground, and they keep prairies trimmed short. Their near-elimination removed another check on mesquite.
Then, there’s fire.
Fires – ignited by lightning – were once a fixture on the plains, and those blazes consumed young, tender shrubs. But beginning more than a century ago, fires were suppressed.
“You take out the bison, you take out the prairie dogs, and you take out the fire – that’s a perfect combination to have shrubs start growing,” Nickell said. “Hence, mesquite.”
Cattle grazing has also played a part. Parts of West Texas – especially in the first rush of ranching – were overgrazed, and rangelands were denuded of grass. The grass had held soil in place. As soils eroded, mesquite – and other shrubs adapted to rocky ground, like creosote – moved in.
On the Llano Estacado, the plateau that stretches from Midland-Odessa to Lubbock, landscapes that were once shortgrass prairies are now mesquite shrublands.
It’s possible to think of sparsely populated West Texas as relatively untouched. The truth is quite different.
“The Llano Estacado is probably one of the most altered habitats in North America,” Nickell said. “The species composition of grasses has changed. We’ve turned the soil so much with agriculture and for energy exploration. It’s been heavily grazed – it’s had a history of overgrazing, even in the Big Bend country.”
But Nickell said it’s important to remember that this landscape has never been static. The first people to arrive here likely found the plains studded with pine trees – as well as mammoths, ground sloths and camels.
“You really can’t go back to some ‘Prairie of Eden,’ so to speak,” he said. “It’s always been a land that it’s in change – always. With the advent of humans, those changes have come about at a lot faster pace.”
Curse it, cook with it, but don’t take it for granted – in its abundance, mesquite embodies the sweeping changes wrought to this land.