Controlled Burn: Fire, Pipelines & Defending Big Bend

"Truckload of Art," Camp Bosworth
“Truckload of Art,” Camp Bosworth (1999)

ALPINE, Texas—There are flames rising on the highway, erupting from the bowels of an overturned semi. Black, oily smoke roils into the sky. A bearded Jehovah cradles the driver in speckled clouds opposite that oily smoke.

It’s a “Truckload of Art,” a wood-and-paint creation of Marfa artist Camp Bosworth and ode to the Terry Allen song by the same name. Artworks are strewn along the highway. Troopers poke disinterestedly at one framed piece smoldering in the foreground.

It’s a bit of humor suddenly made menacing with the excavation work on the Trans-Pecos Pipeline of Energy Transfer Partners taking place a few miles to the west, an object of derision for roughly 200 people who marched from town Friday to rattle the construction fence during a Big Bend Stands with Standing Rock march in Alpine, Texas.

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In opening ceremony, there was a rotation of speakers, tribal and non-tribal alike. “We are all the same family, protectors of the earth,” said Jerry Lujan, speaking on behalf of his Jumano-Apache ancestors.

“We join in solidarity with our brothers and sisters at Standing Rock of the more than 100, and I heard this morning, more than 200 other tribes who have joined that protest to protect the land, air, and water of future generations of our children so that they too may know the sacredness of the land, air, and water. And we take a stand in solidarity against greed.”

AIM-CTX arrives at Big Bend Stands with Standing Rock march. Image: Greg Harman

[Hear members of AIM-CTX people arriving at the gathering Friday morning.]

Today, however, the quiet of the high Chihuahua has returned to the shadow of what locals know as Pierce Mesa. A handful of workers in yellow vests and hardhats are scratching in the sand. The cameras of the dozen-odd regional media representatives are gone. A worker has just arrived in a Toyota SUV with California plates. He says he just came out of semi-retirement for the pipeline job, though he’s “not permitted to speak to the media.”

I came to see the pipeline as it is today in a slower space. To consider how it sits on the land. How it sits across and against the earth.

Trans-Pecos Pipeline
Trans-Pecos Pipeline

Most of those who came as engaged visitors, or as returned descendants, as Lujan welcomed them, have cleared out—the cameras, the call-and-response of the march, the drumming and singing, absent for now.

Having briefly touched the land here, having met this snaking creation of Energy Transfer Partners, there are promises of return. It’s been an engagement, an introduction, a new relationship formed, portending something stretching out indefinite ahead in time.

Something you feel among the upturned rock and volcanic peaks is how this land knows time. It will persist, of course, however humanity chooses to respond—or not respond—to a “last chance” to tackle the gathering destructive power of climate change [See “The Sky’s Limit”].

Virginia Brotherton
Virginia Brotherton

Though quiet, Alpiners like Virginia Brotherton, who live in the Alpine suburb of Sunny Glen of about 150 homes, won’t be able to avoid the work as it progresses day by day. The pipeline being plowed into a deep trench slices across the only road going into or out of her neighborhood. This limited access is a concern should a crisis develop.

She speaks of recent fires in that transition zone between grassland and railroad and mountain. She worries aloud, after an exhausting two days, recounting the Mother’s Day fire that scorched these hills in 2011, when Texas experienced historic fires that chewed their way through 4 million acres, drawing on responders from more than 40 states and Mexico. It was a summer of colliding hardships amplified by global warming.

Jussara Oliveira and Geronimo Son
Jussara Oliveira and Geronimo Son

At Brotherton’s home, the last of those march attendees who camped out here are packing up their tents.

Talk of fires twists into discussion of alternative meanings, fire not only as a destroyer. It is a creative element too, loosing the seeds, allowing for an explosion of new life.

Austin-based Geronimo Son, who says he is soon on his way to Standing Rock, speaks of the movement being led by indigenous peoples, sending echoes from the inter-tribal encampment up north. “I’m thinking it’s just going to spread like a wildfire. I’m hoping,” he says, before adding: “I think there are spiritual forces at work, probably the ancestors who are about us, that care about our moment here.”

Also among the last to break camp this morning is musician Charlie Pierce.

“They’re radicalizing us,” he says of the pressures of the extractive industry, “and at the same time there is nothing radical about wanting clean water.”