Happy New Year's Eve, y'all! Welcome to the last blog of 2017. Since it's going to be a long one, I highly recommend grabbing your blanket (because it is COLD today!!!), fetching a snack and/or warm beverage, and hunkering down on the couch to have a read. This is the story of the inspiration behind a piece I just completed. I call it the Rivers of Texas necklace.
To me, there’s something special about the rivers of Texas, especially central and southern Texas, deep in the Hill Country. It’s not just the fact that Texas rivers hold some unique species of fish and other critters (case in point: the Guadalupe bass is found nowhere else in the world except here in Texas. How cool is that?! Also, HELLO, ALLIGATOR GAR!!! The coolest freshwater fish EVER!). It’s not just the fact that they run through some of the most picturesque countryside on earth. It’s not JUST either of those things. It is that the rivers of Texas are life, not to be taken for granted.
I was born in eastern Tennessee. In Tennessee, you can walk out your front door, your back door, or even your side door and trip on a river, creek, branch, rill, stream, fork, or spring. You look at a map of eastern Tennessee, and there are hundreds of nameless issuances of water. Growing up, I could go dig a hole pretty much anywhere and eventually hit water. Those rivers were just something that was always there. Everywhere. You didn’t bother to give directions by naming the rivers you’d pass, because there were just too damn many of them to bother with. You didn’t have to worry about being lost in the woods, because chances are you’d find water, and with it, food. You might even hear banjos, but that is a story for another time.
When I moved to Texas many, many years ago, I was struck by two major differences from my former home. One: the sky was wide open. There was no place to hide from God, man, or any weather phenomena. I confess it took me a good three or four months before I could walk outside without feeling panicked. Two: there was no water. Anywhere. Just huge expanses of prairie in all directions, as far as the eye could see from the top floor of my designated music practice building at the University of North Texas. What water there was had a name. Every glorified ditch, every weed-choked slow-moving tributary, every sludgy, stagnant bog had not only a name but a big highway marker designating what that body of water was to be called. It was as if whoever was mapping the area was so excited to see water, any water at all, that he gave it a name to show it was important. Necessary. Needed.
That first summer I lived in Denton was one of the hottest on record. The ground cracked deep, and as I would ride my bike from campus to our cockroach-infested apartment, I could feel the trees slowly giving up the will to survive. It did not rain for three solid months, and when it finally did, the raindrops sizzled on the blazing concrete, vaporizing almost as soon as they hit the ground. The rain was even hot to the touch, like bath water. I distinctly remember a young mother bringing her new baby outside to see rain for the first time. This was absolutely mind-blowing to me. That child had lived his whole life without feeling the rain on his face. Back where I was born, we would consider a week without rain a dry spell. Back where I was born, there was never a cloudless sky.
I started to pay closer attention to water after that summer. I sought out the hidden ponds on TWU campus with their giant alligator snapping turtle I nicknamed “Grandpa”, and the catfish you could feed hotdog buns to if you managed to summon it from the depths. Mr. Karlsson and I spent many an evening up there with a flashlight observing the fish and amphibians and reptiles and other creatures that had come to call that rare patch of water home. Though we were within driving distance to several reservoirs, the unabashed artificial nature of them made them strange to me. They were windy places, empty of life and lined with rotting fish. At the time, it did not occur to me that Texas was in the midst of a severe drought. All my twenty-four year-old self knew was that I was living in some sort of scorched no-man’s land. Those lone ponds were a sanctuary to many.
It wasn’t until a few years later that Mr. Karlsson had the means to travel outside of the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. My first real encounter with rivers in Texas was in Concan, along the Frio River. It was so long ago that I don’t recall the exact date, but I remember it was cold and unusually rainy. After my husband and I had settled in to our cabin for our well-deserved vacation, we decided to go exploring. ‘Surely,’ I thought, ‘in all these hills, surely there must be a river.’ (Y’all don’t judge. This was before GPS or internet on cell phones, and we didn’t have cell phones anyway, so it didn’t matter.) We meandered through the scrub, looking at the live oak and mesquite, trying to imagine why anyone on earth would want to live way out in the middle of nowhere, when there it was. Even in the gloom, the river seemed to glow a crystal blue-green. It was mesmerizing. I had never seen a color quite like it before. When we got closer, we determined it was the slate or the shale or some such stone in the river bed reflecting the light through the shimmering clear water. It was so unlike any river I had ever seen, being so clear and blue and cold, that I did not know what to make of it, other than it was some kind of magic.
Over the ensuing years, I have had the great good fortune to travel most of the length and breadth of Texas. I have been lucky enough in the past six months to be able to see many of the rivers of the Hill Country and enjoy the state parks along the way. The one thing I have noticed above all others is this: unlike the rivers of Tennessee, those dark and murky, wide and deep nameless wells of mystery that hide countless monsters both real and imagined, the rivers of central and south Texas are bright and hard, clear as crystal. Unlike the people of Texas, the rivers of Texas do not open their arms to welcome strangers and share their secrets. Like the rugged landscape surrounding them, they make you work for it. The rivers of Texas command that to know them is to study them closely, to learn each rock, each fish, each leaf, and to respect and appreciate that shining, subtle, sparkling water, for it could be gone tomorrow. In Texas, every river has a name, for every river gives life.
When I was working on this one particular piece of silver, in order to practice the ancient metalsmithing technique known as granulation, it was not going according to plan. Due to the nature of the sterling and the solder I heaped on there to get everything to stay put, and due to my inexperience, the texture was beginning to look rough and worn, almost like the pebbles in a river bed. Rather than abandon the project, or try to realign the dozens of teeny tiny silver and copper balls, I pressed forward, finishing out the knobbly border to the bezel setting destined to be filled with Tibetan turquoise a delicate shade of robin’s egg blue.
When set, the color and texture of the piece so reminded me of that gloomy afternoon I first spied the Frio River that I decided to match it with aqua terra jasper beads I had on hand. The pattern of stone shot through with gemmy greenish quartz reminded me of the way the Llano and the Pedernales wend their way through sand bars and shoals, reflecting jade and emerald in the bright sunshine. The dyed blue agate I added reminded me of the blue of Texas’ eternal summer skies, relentlessly beautiful. I chose to make a Y-style chain to represent the confluence of springs that form the rivers of the HIll Country, the way all rivers, in one way or another, join together to find their way to the sea.
So that's it! That is the inspiration behind that little necklace I just finished in my ongoing quest to add texture and depth to my work. (If you want to learn more about that, read my previous blog "Making an Omelette.") Now, if y'all will excuse me, I'm going to go put another pair of socks on so I don't freeze my toes off and stuff my face with those no-yeast cinnamon rolls I made this morning. Happy new year, thanks for stopping by, and to those who made it through to the end, I salute you!
For more information...
Want to learn more about all the wildlife roaming around Texas, or all the fun things you can do at Texas state parks? Check out the Texas Parks & Wildlife website: https://tpwd.texas.gov/
Feeling adventurous and want to catch an alligator gar for yourself? I highly recommend giving Bubba a try: http://www.garfish-texas.com
Really just want quick cinnamon rolls? Try these super tasty ones that don't need yeast! https://sugarspunrun.com/easy-cinnamon-rolls-no-yeast-required/