Graves, John. From a Limestone Ledge: Some Essays and Other Ruminations About Country Life in Texas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf , 1980.
Critics say modern western thought began with William Shakespeare. Harold Bloom says American thought began with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Texas thought begins with John Alexander Graves III. Graves, better known for his 1960 masterpiece, Goodbye to a River, is a thinking man. He has been labeled an environmentalist, a conservationist, a bird-peeker, the Texas Sage, and a Texas Treasure. He is all of these and much more; he’s an American Treasure and Goodbye to a River is canonical.
From a Limestone Ledge, a collection of his ruminations in the pages of Texas Monthly from 1976 until sometime in 1982, is an amalgam of thoughts from a “rural” man when the rest of Texas was rushing to the urban centers of Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. Graves captures the nuances of a dying lifestyle in From a Limestone Edge-the lifestyle of pre-World War II America-where self-reliance on the land and where a knowledge of beekeeping, animal husbandry, and how to obtain your own meats and vegetables often meant the difference between survival and hunger.
The essays in From a Limestone Edge appeared in Texas Monthly under different titles than in the book simply because the brilliance and personal attachment of Graves to his lifestyle and writing where not necessarily the same titles which would attract the urbanized eye of the New Journalism readers of the magazine. What From a Limestone Edge is is a slowed down version of life where one can sit down on the front porch with a mason jar of iced tea and just go about “Noticing.” “Noticing” is a tribute to the dichotomy of city-dwelling and country-living. The essay, like most of Graves’s works, unfolds slowly drawing the reader into the thought of the piece. Simply reading Graves is noticing the unnoticed of life and each of his articles highlight the blindness us city-folk go through life experiencing.
In “Meat,” Graves explores the aversion to the slaughter to dress our table but the affinity our culinary tastes and bodies need from the marbled protein. He discusses the move of man away from getting his hands dirty to the sterility of slaughterhouse well away from the eyes of queasy stomachs. The distance of us from the process cheapens the kill and makes us unappreciative to the sacrifice of flesh the animal gave up us to live. These are precisely the thoughts many of us don’t ruminate on as we stand around a 25-pound turkey dress in stuffing and cranberries and brown-sugar-carmelized carrots on Thanksgiving giving thanks for all the good things in our life, but failing to thank the guest of honor in all its steaming glory and gelatinous, delectable beauty.
From “Noticing” and “Meat,” he writes about the things we urbanized folks think as idiosyncratic or downright weird with our rural grandparents and cousins. I can remember walking through the front “40” with my grandfather and him staring into the deep-blue, cloudless central Texas stopping and smelling the air. He’d “hhmmpphh” in a way particular to him-I miss that sound on lonely days-and he’d bend down on a knee and roll a clod of dry, red Texas clay between his fingers. As the dry caliche fell away, he’d taste the residue on his fingers and look at me and say, “It’s going to rain.” More time than not it rained when he did this. In “Weather between East and West,” he tells us why grandma would stand at the kitchen sink and watch the direction birds alit in a tree and what it means. Or how meaning is brought to the direction a cow stands and what it portends for the weather. He also pays homage to the rain as an ever present character in the lives of the people of sun-scorched Texas and why, once we even take grandma and granddad out of the country and put them in urban old folks homes, they still watch the weatherman hoping for a glimpse of precipitation to quench the dry lands’ thirst.
From a Limestone Ledge is essential Texas reading. And, although it doesn’t make it into A.C. Greene’s50 Greatest Books on Texasbecause it was released after the quintessential book of Texas, From a Limestone Ledge firmly entrenches Graves as the Father of Texas Thought.