WALKING THE LLANO
A TEXAS MEMOIR OF PLACE
Genre: Eco-Memoir / Nature
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Date of Publication: February 15, 2016
Number of Pages: 216
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When American explorers arrived in the Texas Panhandle, they dubbed the region the “Great American Desert.” Its rough terrain appeared flat, dry, uninhabitable. Later, cell phone towers, oil rigs, and wind turbines added to this stereotype. Yet in this lyrical ecomemoir, Shelley Armitage charts a unique rediscovery of an unknown land, a journey at once deeply personal and far-reaching in its exploration of the connections between memory, spirit, and place.
Armitage begins her walk by following the Middle Alamosa Creek thirty meandering miles from her family farm to the Canadian River. Growing up in the small llano town of Vega, Texas, she finds the act of walking inseparable from the act of listening and writing. “What does the land say to us?” she asks as she witnesses human alterations to the landscape—perhaps most catastrophic the drainage of the land’s most precious water source, the Ogallala Aquifer.
But the llano’s wonders persist: colorful mesas and canyons, vast flora and fauna, diverse wildlife. While meditating on the region’s history, Armitage recovers the voices of ancient, Native, and Hispano peoples as interwoven with her own: her father’s legacy, her mother’s decline, a brother’s love. The llano holds not only the beauty of ecological surprises but a renewed kinship in a world ever-changing.
Reminiscent of the work of memoirists Terry Tempest Williams and John McPhee, Walking the Llano is a soaring testimony to the power of landscape to draw us into greater understanding of ourselves and deeper connection with the places we inhabit.
PRAISE FOR WALKING THE LLANO
"Both an intensely lyrical and intimate scrapbook of familial history and a uniquely sublime travelogue of the American Southwestern landscape” A Starred review from Kirkus
". . .an enticing mix of memoir, nature study and the hunting of ghosts. [ Walking The Llano] is a testament to the value of slowing down and watching where you are going." Ollie Reed, The Albuquerque Journal
". . .[Armitage] is an explorer, and from her book we learn much about people who settled [the llano] and those who must now make gutwrenching decisions about modern methods of energy extraction. . .a perfectly balanced memoir." Kimberly Burk, The Oklahoman
"With a cleareyed appreciation for landscape and our place in it combined with uncluttered flowing writing, Armitage establishes her place in the tradition of the best American nature writing." Mark Pendleton, INK
“Once you’ve ambled into the lyrical, evocative pages of Shelley Armitage’s ‘Walking the Llano’, the Plains will never seem plain again.” William deBuys , Author of A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest
“Shelley Armitage’s prose is as poetic as it is intelligent. She masterfully weaves together her personal story with the narrative of the Llano, and she does so in a way that begs the question of what lies ahead for the people and the land she loves. If literature is a study of the human heart—and it is—then Walking the Llano is a quiet masterpiece.” BK Loren, Author of T heft:A Novel and Animal, Mineral, Radical: Essays
“In Walking the Llano, Shelley Armitage does for the Staked Plains what John McPhee did for the Northern Plains in Rising from the Plains. She carefully mines the history, character, and geology of the Llano Estacado and combines it with a compelling personal narrative to create an account that flows with lyricism, authenticity, and wisdom. A splendid and cleareyed book.” Nancy Curtis – Coeditor of Leaning into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West
Hall Ways Review:
First, let me say that this book is about so much more than the landscape of West Texas. Whether a reader has ever placed a toe in Texas or not, the themes and observations of author Shelley Armitage are universal.
The connections Armitage makes between herself and her past, and the land and its future, make me yearn to make my own escape. Reading the book almost incites panic within me -- that I need to revisit the beloved plains (or mountains or deserts) before they are changed and spoiled by human intervention. Her "suspended pool" experience reminded me so much of some of my own excursions. For one, hours into a hike, I'd come upon something surely no other human had witnessed for centuries (ever?), and even before the awe had worn off, I spotted the unmistakable and recent mark of man. (toilet paper. really.) Adding insult to injury, my phone beeped alerting me to a text from my veterinarian's office . . . nearly 1000 miles away.
I could really relate to what Armitage experiences as her mother's health steadily declines. So many decisions to be made, so many emotions at work, so many expectations -- and the Middle Alamosa calls to her as a means of escape. Armitage's musings are cerebral, but it's because she takes the very basic human experience to the next level of thinking. As someone married to a water resource manager, I could also relate to the message that life is all about water, really. The water sources Armitage unexpectedly found are among the coolest of her findings because these are the "sacred places." Her stumbling across 400+ year old springs, ancient petroglyphs, and critters of all kinds seems surprising, but she notes that there are always clues to water's presence -- if you just read the land.
"All journeys revealed themselves as detours."
At times, the story is repetitive and meandering, but it mirrors the lands the author is exploring. The chronology isn't straight forward, and Armitage's flashbacks and recollections are all over the place. . . but the scattered-ness feels right, again echoing how the author must have been feeling in trying to juggle all that had been put upon her while reconciling the present and the past . . . and the future.
Lyrical. Evocative. Moving. Intimate. These are all words that came to me while reading Walking the Llano. It was indeed a journey and escape reading this book, and I highly recommend it to those who find their peace and comfort in the rhythms of the land.
Dr. Shelley Armitage is Professor Emerita from University of Texas at El Paso where she taught courses in literature of the environment, women’s studies, and American Studies. She is author of eight award winning books and 50 scholarly articles. She resides in Las Cruces, New Mexico but still manages her family farm outside of Vega, Texas.
Armitage grew up in the northwest Texas Panhandle in Oldham County. She owns and operates the family farm, 1200 acres of native grass—once part wheat and milo—bordering Interstate 40 on the south and near the Canadian River breaks on the north. Armitage shared this landscape from her childhood on, riding with her father and grandfather to check crops and cattle and later jogging and more recently walking the farm roads. Though most of her adult life has been spent away from the Panhandle as a university professor, Armitage has always returned to the “farm” which offered until recently a 360-degree view of earth and sky. Wind energy farms, oil and gas, microwave towers, and strip mining have greatly altered her childhood landscape.
Throughout her distinguished university career, Armitage’s professional life offered her a connection with landscape. Because of senior Fulbright teaching grants in Portugal and Finland, a Distinguished Fulbright Chair in American Literature in Warsaw, a Distinguished Fulbright Chair in American Studies in Budapest as well as research, writing, and teaching in Ethiopia, the American Southwest, and Hawai’i, place has taken on special meanings. As the Dorrance Roderick Professor at University of Texas at El Paso and a Distinguished Senior Professor in Cincinnati, she decided in her most recent book to write about the meaning of home place as connected to the land’s own ecological and human stories.
As the holder of three National Endowment for the Humanities grants, a National Endowment of the Arts grant, and a Rockefeller grant, Armitage nevertheless prizes a recent recognition from the United States Department of Agriculture most highly. Commended for her “commitment to the spirit, principles, and practices” of the Conservation Reserve Program, Armitage has restored the farm to grassland in an effort to heal fragmented landscapes by recreating wildlife corridors and habitat. Like the fragmented narratives of stories lost, she says: “If we could read the land like a poem, we might more intimately learn from it, understand what it says of natural and human cycles—and that sometimes uneasy relationship between them.”
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