Reviewed by Sarah Evans
I’d only been alive about a decade the first time I looked through The Window. My family had driven nearly seven hours that summer from our central Texas home to Big Bend National Park. A park ranger recommended we head down a short, paved path near the lodge to catch the sunset at The Window overlook. On the cusp of junior high, I’m sure I rolled my eyes when my parents suggested we try it.
I trudged along behind them, unimpressed, until I reached the viewpoint. Ahead of me, several miles of Chihuahuan Desert littered with prickly pear and juniper stretched toward two sand-colored, rock-faced mountains. The mountains curved down toward each other, meeting in a V — The Window — beyond which the land seemed to stretch indefinitely, interrupted at intervals by more mountains, so far away they seemed like mere bumps. I saw them clearly, yet they seemed unreal, mystical even. The sun dropped down right through The Window, the sky shifted to orange, purple and black, and somewhere far beyond that opening, the headlights of intermittent vehicles flashed like stars. I had never felt so moved by a landscape before.
Writer Pam Houston felt similarly the first time she set eyes on the Blair Ranch, 120 acres of high mountain meadowland nestled next to the Continental Divide in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. As she describes in her memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country (W. W. Norton, January 2019), the Upper Rio Grande cut “serpentine turns” through the center of the ranch, and the slopes were “carpeted in Engelmann and blue spruce, Douglas fir, bristlecone pine and aspen.”
It was 1993, and Houston was 31, with $21,000 burning a hole in her pocket from the release of her first book, Cowboys Are My Weakness. She lived out of a tent, but was finally searching for a place to put down roots. Her book earnings represented only about five percent of the ranch’s $400,000 price tag, but the “unspeakable beauty” of the place convinced her she belonged there.
“I had no way to imagine, in the first moment of seeing it, that the view out the kitchen window — of the barn and the corral and the Divide behind it — would become the backdrop for the rest of my life,” she writes.
It was just the backdrop she needed to help her heal from a childhood filled with emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. “I had been born to two humans who wanted me not at all, but maybe that didn’t matter so much,” she writes. “I would always be a child of the wilderness.”
Houston, now 56, feels so intertwined with her ranch that she only truly feels comfortable when she’s there, sitting and writing in her cabin, tending to her donkeys, sheep and horses, or hiking with her Irish wolfhounds.
When wildfires bear down on her home while she is more than a thousand miles away at a teaching gig — a story she recounts with gripping precision in the book’s longest essay — Houston continuously checks on her property through a wildfire reporting website and phone calls to her ranch sitter. The reader’s anxiety rises along with Houston’s, as both writer and reader hope against hope that the winds will change, the flames will subside, and that the firefighters will prevail.
Houston’s story of the wildfire versus her ranch is emblematic of one of the major quandaries she grapples with in the book: how humans could be so callous toward the Earth. When Deep Creek takes the reader off Houston’s ranch, it’s to places like the Great Bear Rainforest on the coast of British Columbia, where a proposed liquefied natural gas pipeline threatens to tear through the homeland of a rarely seen, all-white spirit bear, and where the migrating humpback whales looked skinnier than usual because changes in their ecosystem have made it harder for them to find food.
“We may have more complicated language, opposable thumbs and this dangerous thing called reason,” Houston writes, “but any self-respecting llama or buffalo or spider knows enough not to destroy its own home.”
I remember my family visited Big Bend several summers in a row, but then we took a few years off, not returning again until I was almost driving age. I hardly recognized The Window when I saw it again. Smog clogged the opening, and no matter how much I strained my eyes, I couldn’t see a way through it.
“Didn’t you used to be able to see much farther?” I asked a ranger. She nodded heavily as she told me that pollutants had traveled all the way from Mexico City and settled in the basin, leaving The Window less like a portal to another world and more like a pane of glass smudged by a careless kid.
It was a new concept for me, that if people didn’t take care of their patch of planet, it could also threaten the homes of others in faraway lands. The idea unsettled me, and I directed my adolescent anger at these unknown polluters.
Houston also feels anger, mixed with protectiveness, mournfulness, and incredulity, at knowing that some still walk this world carelessly, with no regard for their environmental impact. Her book is an ode to a ranch that has been integral to her life, but also to a planet that has been irrevocably changed, to the detriment of many.
“How do we become who we are in the world? We ask the world to teach us,” Houston advises. The planet is ready to teach. Deep Creek is a beautiful yet solemn reminder that it’s well past time for us to listen.