Lizards on the Mantel, Burros at the Door: A Big Bend Memoir by Etta Koch with June Cooper Price

lizards burrosThanks to Fil for another hit. (Still don’t give me any more books, though, I tell you I’m swamped.) Reading this memoir about a place I love was engaging, amusing and comforting.

Etta Lindeman was born in Ohio in 1904. She was an active youngster but sickly in her young adulthood, when she married Peter Koch. One recommendation to help her breathing troubles was to move to a warm, dry climate. This, combined with Peter’s professional ambitions, took them on a trip cross-country that was to wind up in Arizona, where they would settle and continue to raise their three daughters. Peter was a newspaper photographer who wanted to make nature films and travel the country giving accompanying lectures; the National Parks Service helped by engaging him to promote several parks, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and eventually… Big Bend. The Kochs drove their 23-foot trailer (“Porky the Road Hog”) from Ohio to the Smokies, through Louisiana, where Peter filmed the wetlands’ water birds, and into Big Bend through Marathon, Texas. As Etta relates in this journal-like memoir, her family’s adjustment to the West Texas desert near the Mexican border was not without challenges. She was initially leery: “Texas had always been for me a movie set… A place of flimsy barrooms people by six-footers with six-shooters.” But eventually it wins their hearts and they settle permanently. The three Koch daughters have remained in Texas. The eldest, June, is co-author here, having done her own research, pulled together her mother’s papers and a first draft and seen them through to publication.

Etta’s voice is charming. She is not a professional writer, and her prose is perhaps not artful; I think of the term “outsider art” – but surprisingly lovely in moments, too. I liked her evocative descriptions, and these lines:

Nearby is a weeping juniper that is so strange. At first I thought the tree was wilting and perhaps ready to die but was told it is a dejected tree by nature.

Her style is mostly reportorial, but with a brisk, conversational tone. The chapters generally cover episodes or events: the surprise birthday party Pete throws her; a trip to Hot Springs; Pete’s trip down the Santa Elena canyon in a homemade boat. She has a sense of humor, too, a sense of fun (despite describing herself as the scaredy-cat of this active family). My favorite part must have been the final chapter, “Kaufman’s Draw,” which describes an adventure driving across the desert: it reminded me of Abbey’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” that story in The Journey Home that I loved so much.

I found the Big Bend I know and love in this book, although earlier, cleaner. When Etta writes,

I didn’t know the sky was so big… so blue… but as we traveled west I discovered that although the earth grew whiter and vegetation sparser, the sky grew more intense, more brilliantly blue.

I recognize this precisely. I have yet to find the scientific explanation for it, but the light out there is different: sharper, brighter.

Lizards on the Mantel, Burros at the Door is also a fine primary source on the work of community building, which is part of what it means to pioneer or homestead: as the Park Service’s settlement (in the Basin of the Chisos Mountains) grows in population, Etta – who had home-schooled her children since arriving in Big Bend – teamed up with other wives and mothers to provide schooling and cultural activities. The community puts on dances, has potluck dinners and cooperates in living and raising kids in such a remote spot.

Simply told but with unmistakable personality, this first-person account of roughing it in far West Texas won my heart. It will get extra points with readers who love the place, like I do, but there is certainly something here for everyone who likes history, memoir, and the romance of simple living.

Rating: 7 murals.

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