Fragments of Water
By Emma Bruce
When I first left Texas, I was not prepared to feel so unmoored. There were nights, weeks into my first New England autumn, when I lay awake at night, recreating the limestone cliffs and grasses of the Hill Country outside Austin—the place I am from. I imagined the yellow flowers encrusting prickly pears in spring, the smell of cedars in winter, the feeling of hot air and dust on my skin. Verbena, winecup, pink evening primrose, firewheels turning the hills pastel and gold. I thought, almost obsessively, about a bougainvillea I had once seen in Laredo, creeping up a stucco wall. I hadn’t thought it would matter that bougainvillea didn’t grow in Boston until I knew with equal certainty that it did.
Months earlier, as I began my freshman year at college, I had steeled myself for the usual homesickness: the absence of family and my high school friends, the loneliness of being in a place where I knew no one. And it wasn’t that I didn’t feel their absence, didn't have moments when all I wanted was to sit down at my mom’s generations-old kitchen table and watch her pull the blue and white casserole dish out of the oven. It was just that something else was happening.
I found myself thinking that it was almost as if time itself was different in New England. I missed the year-round heat at home and the way it encouraged us to be unhurried. And I had taken for granted the long-haired men with their Stetsons who busked downtown or played the local cafes. I missed Rudy's BBQ, the Tex-Mex dives, and the breakfast tacos my grandmother bought us as children, warmed by a heat lamp, the labels slick with grease.
I had hated country music before, finding it a kind of sentimental kitsch, but once I was no longer in Texas it became a balm—a way of being present to places I no longer occupied. It felt, too, like a framework for understanding my longing, giving me language for what a connection to place could mean.
Deep as I was in this nostalgia, I felt content in the knowledge that all would remain for me. Then, nothing seemed more eternal than the return of the monarch butterflies in autumn, the fall of the juniper berries in winter, the hills themselves. I thought that I would have my East Coast adventure and when—if—I wanted, I would return.
The summer after my first semester, I found myself boarding another flight north, this time for the Netherlands where I would study for a month. The program was held in the southern countryside. It was my first time in Europe and I sat, breathless, as the train sped through the flat green lowlands, water droplets rolling across the glass of my window.
At the program, I became friends with a young woman from southern Virginia who grew up traveling to Santa Fe. Our conversations returned to the South and Southwest—the mesas, the Hill Country, the Shenandoah Valley. We talked of the quality of light in the South, the violence of summer thunderstorms, what it means to be connected to a place that holds such pain and to love it late, only in absence.
She made me a playlist of folk and country music and I listened to it on repeat as we flew through the Dutch countryside on the high-speed train. I fell asleep, my head resting on the scratched glass of the window, earbuds still in. The songs possessed a magic—precise in their storytelling, rich in nostalgia for homes and landscapes lost.
On our last night in the Netherlands, we filled backpacks with cheap wine and walked to the banks of the river Maas. We passed the bottles between us as the sun set, reflected in the river. Most of the night is a blur, but I remember lying on the muddy riverbank beside her. We were, at this point, too drunk and tired to say much at all, so I dug my phone out of my jacket and played Emmylou Harris’s "Boulder to Birmingham.”
I had discovered the song years earlier, from a podcast episode where the host argued that country is so evocative because of the specificity of its storytelling. In the song, Emmylou sings that she would “walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham” to see her lover’s face. Now, I’m drawn to how her longing takes up a particular distance—a physical and a cultural one: from a liberal Colorado city to the heart of the deep South. It’s as if her heartache, and the walk it inspires, frames her destination with dread and nostalgia. I didn’t think that she would go to Birmingham—let alone walk there—if not for seeing her lover. And yet, the mention of Birmingham at all in this abstract example of her love points to a specific connection to the place that the song never fully contextualizes. It feels significant, too, that this was the first country song I ever really loved. Like the speaker, I had formed a tenuous existence between places and was beginning to feel I needed a reason as strong as hers to return.
That night at the river I wasn’t thinking about the lyrics, only basking in the idea of one day possessing so great a love. I think, now, that in imagining a person, and not a place as its object, I misunderstood the possibilities of the song. But on that balmy night we were only interested in experiencing this second-hand heartache together. We lay singing as our bodies warmed the earth beneath us and the river lapped the muddy banks.
Back in New England for the next semester, I began an internship at Boston's public television and radio conglomerate. That season they were airing a PBS documentary by Ken Burns called Country Music. The calendar in my cubicle had a picture of the Grand Ole Opry and the speakers in the auditorium played Lucinda Williams before staff meetings. I discovered I could access the documentary online and began listening to it on a page hidden behind the event calendar I was reformatting. The gentle New England light filtered through the top floor office windows while I learned that country music didn't become popular until people from the rural South and Appalachia moved to cities and moved North, bringing the music with them. In this way, country became the sound of homesickness, of nostalgia for a lost landscape. A kind of loving backward glance. It made sense, I thought, that I hadn't loved it until I needed a way to remember my home.
I began to realize how intimately all my childhood memories were tied to place—often the arid, weedy space of my childhood backyard and the cedar woods behind it.
When I was six, my mom bought a feed trough from a farm supply store near our home. It was spring and we filled it with dirt and planted rosemary and sage and lavender. In the summers I'd run through the yard with a watering can, my feet barely touching the blistering earth, dodging fire ant hills. I never could stop to put on shoes. A Southern thing, my friend tells me, corners of her mouth lifting, but I think this is only the way of children. When we were very young my sisters and I played a game where the plants in the yard were our daughters. We planted Carolina jasmine while wearing cotton shorts with elastic waistbands, dirt under our nails the color of milk chocolate. Bougainvillea, Esperanza, Carolina jasmine, all named alliteratively.
When I write about my home, I list plant names the way place names are listed in country songs—the way Lake Charles resurfaces in Lucinda Williams’s work or Amarillo and Fort Worth recur in George Strait’s. As a child our backyard felt like my entire world and so my knowledge of place— nostalgia for place—has become tied up less in the neighborhoods of Austin than in these flowers.
The winter that my internship ended, I became obsessed with another Emmylou Harris song: the ballad “Red Dirt Girl.” I listened to it over and over on my long nightly walks from work, my boots falling heavy on graying snow and cigarettes as I made my way along the harbor. In the song, the speaker and her friend Lillian grow up in the same Alabama town. The speaker seems to leave but Lillian stays, loses her brother to the Vietnam war, marries young, finds herself with five kids at 27-years-old, drinks too much, and dies young, killing her dream of leaving.
Throughout the song, everything is measured by its distance to Meridian. In the beginning, the girls sit on a porch, south-east of Meridian. When Lillian’s brother dies, he does so a million miles from Meridian. In the end, when Lillian herself dies, she does so having “never got any farther / Across the line than Meridian.” In the song, Meridian is a sinkhole Lillian cannot escape, and yet to the speaker it is the nostalgic space of their shared childhood. Because of this, the place name carries a double meaning. For the speaker it holds her love of Lillian, while I imagine that if Lillian were to write her own song, the place would be colored differently. The speaker’s distance, both from the physical space and from the trauma Lillian experienced in adulthood, allow her to remember it with tenderness.
As I listened, I felt caught between these two narratives, being both the girl who wanted to measure everything in its distance to Meridian, and the girl who wanted opportunities elsewhere. I couldn’t help fixating on the almost biblical language of the last line, where Lillian is laid “in the red dirt ground.” She is the girl of the Earth and she returns, despite her will. I was entranced by these mentions of the red dirt, the fact that the girl in the song is the Red Dirt Girl before she is Lillian, because that was the way I was beginning to feel about myself.
Around this time I introduced myself as someone from Texas and was quick to remind those who forgot. I felt the need, too, to clarify that I was not from the plains of north Texas or the marshes near the Louisiana border or the red-tinged cliffs of Brewster County. Though I had no way of explaining, I felt it was important—critical, even—that I was from the center, from the hills.
I didn’t have the conceptual framework to describe this feeling until years later, when I stumbled across a quote from Peter Berg, an early proponent of bioregionalism. When asked where he was from, Berge was known to say: “I am from the confluence of the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River and San Francisco Bay, of the Shasta bioregion, of the North Pacific Rim of the Pacific Basin of the Planet Earth.” I recognized myself in this line—my impulse always to say I was from the Hill Country, not Austin. Like the Red Dirt Girl I felt so completely claimed by a place, unable to shake its soil from my name, my being.
In the end, it was not an old friendship that brought me back, but a global epidemic. I returned to the Hill Country in spring to finish my university courses online, from the safety of home. It was good to be back; around me, the sweetness of purple coneflower and verbena coming up over the hills and ridges.
I first saw Kinder Morgan's Permian Highway Pipeline while driving west to Blue Hole, the swimming spot my sisters love, nestled in still green solace, roots of pines and cypress slipping into lapping water. We were driving up a ridge and I saw, on the other side, lines of pipes side by side. They were the kind of pale green I never see in plants, only things meant to blend in with, or suggest, plants: the power generators of my suburb or zero-calorie sweeteners marketed as natural. It’s a color that I associate with sickness, though explaining this feels impossible.
The Permian Highway Pipeline will move 2.1 billion cubic feet of fracked gas daily, from the deserts of West Texas to the Gulf Coast, crossing our rivers and creeks, karst aquifer recharge zones, the habitats of the endangered golden cheeked warbler and Texas salamander. In drilling fluid tests, it was found that Kinder Morgan has already released arsenic into our drinking water at three to four times the legal limit and lead at 10 to 30 times. There is also aluminum and barium and manganese. In a video, a Blanco county woman raised a glass filled from her sink and it was brown, containing carcinogenic drilling fluid that had been spilled.
I felt guilty that I had not known sooner, that I had done nothing to protest. And worse—that years ago, eager as I was to be somewhere else, I might not have even noticed.
At Blue Hole I floated, eyes closed, feeling the gentle current on my stomach and back. As if from another world, I heard the shouts of my siblings as they swung into the hole, plunging into the clear water among the roots. I remembered summer days spent in the creek on my friend's property. Pieces of sun and water on skin, all of us laughing. The dry creek bed in the hills beyond my piano teacher's home and the fallen pomegranate blossoms I gathered there. And then I was home, hair still damp, and I was researching the pipeline. On my screen, truck after truck carrying these pipes rolled through an intersection. The video was a long minute, and the trucks had no end or beginning.
I thought of my sister's daughters, their toddler shrieks as they splashed in the freshwater of Blue Hole. Beyond the catastrophe of environmental devastation, I feared we would lose ourselves if we lost this water, this dirt.
Now, the wildflower season comes early as winters become milder, arriving later, staying less. It is already too warm for the American Beech trees of east Texas, which have begun to disappear. There are dozens of native plants, occurring only in Texas, that may be lost. Some grow only in one or two counties.
The summer I turned 12, the shift to autumn brought ash to the air. I stood with my mother in our driveway, each of us clutching greasy paper bags of ribs and brisket, looking at the graying sky. The street was hot; the sun reflected off the blacktop and the sky smelled of smoke. The fire was east, in the next county. We stood still, eyes watering, as the ancient pine forests burned to blackened skeletons, ribs hanging off at garish angles. This was to become the deadliest wildfire in Texas history. We would drive through the county later, on our way east, and the land would be still, the blackened landscape broken only by the gentle slopes of hills.
I remember that smell of the ash when I read that Texas will experience the most severe threat of wildfires in the nation by 2050. And that by the same year the drought levels are expected to increase in severity by 75 percent.
I wonder if all this loss will create a new kind of country music, one filled with nostalgia not merely for a landscape the speaker has migrated from, but one that may quite literally no longer exist.
In many ways, the Austin of my childhood has already ceased to be. Sky-rises downtown spread exponentially, their pale blue fingers rising from the earth. The cedar woods in which I played is hemmed in by a new highway, the expansion of what used to be a two-lane country road. The bougainvillea in the backyard died one drought, as did the esperanza. The jasmine died after freezing in a winter storm that left Texas without power for weeks. “Part of me,” my sister texted, “died with it.”
I know that to move to Austin for good, to set down roots, would be a kind of reckoning: with the space of my childhood, the space I created in my absence, and the reality of the city around me. It is one I am not ready to experience, and so in some sense—at least for now—I cannot fully return.
In winter, after the historic storm, after lawsuits were raised and dismissed, the Permian Highway Pipeline was completed. Kinder Morgan argued there was no evidence of harm to land or water. The pipeline was moved slightly—it would no longer cross beneath the Blanco River—but the question of its existence was never addressed.
I had returned to Boston months before to begin my semester. When my daily work was done, I found myself wrapping a scarf around my head and neck and walking to stand on a dock in the harbor. The water would swell black around me, carrying the reflection of city lights from the other shore.
Sometimes I arrived early and watched the sunset, ribbons of pink caught in pools of dirty water on concrete. Once I found myself crying, wiping tears black with mascara from my face. There, in the harsh wind, by dirty water, the cool stillness of Blue Hole came back only in pieces, as fragments of water.
In her essay “The Blue of Distance” Rebecca Solnit writes that while we cannot go back to relive the great loves and losses of our lives, the places where they occurred remain—they are what can be possessed, held close. “They become,” she writes, “the tangible landscape of memory [...] and in some way you too become them.” Reading this, I wonder what will occur if a time comes when we cannot really return, when these places become altered beyond recognition. What of that landscape of memory will remain?
The last time I saw Austin I was driving south on my way home from work, Lucinda Williams turned down low on the speakers. The sun had set almost completely beyond the riverbank. It was reflected yellow-pink in the buildings, the sky behind them deep blue, the moon drifting off to the right. I couldn’t help looking back as I sped down the freeway, swerving in my lane.