Life By the Drop: The Writing on the Wall

This report features contributions from Matt Largey and Emily Donahue of KUT News and Jake Silverstein of Texas Monthly.

While last year was the worst in Texas’ recorded history, it was only the latest in a long string of dry spells that stretches back through Texas history, to a time before it was even Texas.

Drought has been a recurring theme in the accounts of nearly everyone who has passed through this place. Around five hundred years ago, the Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca wrote the first European chronicle of a voyage through Texas. His journals recorded the misery of the drought-stricken people he encountered.

“For anyone who has lived in west Texas, the presence of drought is every day,” says Roger Hodge, who writes about an early Texas civilization that struggled with water and drought in the new Texas Monthly. “It always seems like there is a drought going on.”

That was certainly true for the people who once lived along the lower Pecos. The ones who left behind magnificent paintings on the walls of caves – with messages we’re still trying to decipher. You can listen to their story above, or view the slideshow featuring some of Roger Hodge’s photos of the rock art up top. (To see more of his photos, visit his website.)

Hodge’s family has run a ranch along the Devils River in the dry scrub desert outside Del Rio for more than a hundred years. “If you look at the deep history of this landscape you find that drought is a recurrent pattern,” he says. “What we know is that in this part of West Texas the climate has been getting steadily dryer since roughly 12 thousand years ago. There were extraordinary droughts. We’ve had droughts out here that lasted 2,000 years.”

“And the choices that humans have to make the behavior that animals display in response that change is pretty consistent up until very recent times,” Hodge continues. “What happens when the rains stop is that the animals leave and the humans leave or they completely change their way of life.”

Matt Largey of KUT News produced the audio for this piece, and Filipa Rodrigues of StateImpact Texas produced the slideshow.
Roger Hodge is the former editor of Harper’s Magazine. You can read his story, “The Writing on the Wall,” in Texas Monthly. And you can see more photos of the rock art at his website.
This report is part of the series Life By the Drop: Drought, Water and the Future of Texas, a collaboration with KUT News and Texas Monthly and StateImpact Texas. You can listen to a special one-hour audio report from the series here at StateImpact TexasAnd you can learn more about the history of the drought at our interactive web page, Dried Out: Confronting the Texas Drought, and share your thoughts on Twitter with the hashtag #txwater.

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