The South Texas Brushlands is sometimes called “the thorn forest” because, as the name implies, many of the plants have thorns. But when I was a boy we referred to it simply as “the woods.” And those woods were my home. I roamed and hunted and camped and found no particular reason to do anything else. I guess I was lucky in that I knew where my interests lay early on in life. But there was another word I often heard used when referring to the Brushlands and that was El Monte. For the people of the region el monte had historical roots leading back through generations of Native Americans who have dwelled on the land for perhaps 10,000 years. Most of the people who live in South Texas are of Native American descent and I grew up among them and learned much about the woods from them. Their “collective unconscious,” if I can borrow a Jungian term, embodies the memories of those for whom the brush was the source of all things. From the brush the native people constructed their dwellings, found and hunted their food, obtained medicines, and within that forest they developed their world views and created their myths.
It’s strange how places acquire their names. One man sees only thorns but another sees a sanctuary—a wonderland of both flora and fauna. Years ago I attended a hearing to protest the drilling for natural gas in a Texas state park. Whether politicians were paid off (would anyone be surprised?) or bureaucrats had neither the power or will to fight off the assault will remain a mystery, but the drilling occurred and the park was never quite the same. During the hearings a man testified: “Why would anyone want to save the brush anyway?” After all, he said it was nothing but a billion thorns. And so I experienced firsthand the way different people see nature. For him, as with many others, it is nothing but a thing to be exploited and even destroyed so that they can profit from its ruin. For others, I included, it is a place to be revered and cherished and preserved.
Yes, there are thorns as the above photo clearly shows, but look again and note that within those boughs lies much more. I prefer calling it The Brushlands, or El Monte. I’m not too fond of the term “the thorn forest.” Perhaps that’s because I see so much more than merely a collection of thorns.