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Shannon Davies & Margaret Pease Harper


“To my right, the Caprock Escarpment rises long and low, indigo blue against the pale wash of early afternoon sky. Before me, the rolling terrain is sculpted by the creeks that join like fingers on a hand to form the Colorado River…”  — Margie Crisp, River of Contrasts

 courtesy Texas A&M

The Storyteller’s Muse

Unless they are coaxed into the light, the stories of humble Texans who spend their lives dedicated to passions for the state’s natural science and history might fade away before ever having the opportunity to inspire and educate others. Winsome Shannon Davies, recently retired from three decades of filling bookshelves with these stories, has proven to be the Pied Piper of those who champion the Texas outdoors.

“The authors that I’ve dealt with are so committed and so dedicated, knowing they’re not going to get any financial gain,” she says. “They’ve reinforced for me the importance of books. It’s amazing in this age, where there are all kinds of ways to communicate, that there are still people who really want to write books. And, of course, there are still people who really want to publish books.”

Shannon’s love of natural science began early, and quite naturally, with family camping excursions in Wyoming’s Snowy Range and other remote wilderness areas. Mom loved wildflowers and Dad was an avid angler; Shannon and her brothers waded down miles of chilly creeks in the endless days of childhood.

Maturity and a move to Texas opened young Shannon’s eyes to the stories of the natural wonders of her new home state. Her early affinity for wild things and places grew into a consuming passion for publishing books about every aspect of them when a little-known gem about the dedication of Texas conservation heroes, Land of Bears and Honey: A Natural History of East Texas, by Joe Truett and Dan Lay, rocked her world.

“That book introduced me to the idea that there were people in Texas who were very attached to a certain place, so attached that they committed their whole lives to taking care of it and trying to save it,” Shannon says.

At the time, 1988, she had just started at the University of Texas Press for an editorial fellowship established by James Michener, having completed her doctoral studies in American Studies as a Fulbright scholar. She soon became the science editor and searched out these Texas stewards, wooing them with her warmth and charm to write their stories as books, filling a significant void in the Texas lexicon.

“I began to then benefit from getting to know these really, really interesting, committed people,” Shannon says. “Their work and writing (often with the staunch support of series editors, foundations, state agencies and other generous institutions) have contributed massively to the natural history literature of Texas, in both quantity and quality.”

Shannon switched university presses in 2000; in the interim, putting out Texas Birds magazine for the Texas Ornithological Society from 1998-2001. She was now a natural history editor thrilled by the new possibilities at Texas A&M University Press in College Station (eventually becoming director).

“It started me on a new path because of the university’s huge emphasis on agriculture, meaning wildlife biology, natural resource science, range ecology,” she says. “It opened up a world of new authors, new thinking, new books, new exposure to what land conservation and preservation meant in this state.”

University presses differ from other presses. The authors aren’t paid except for royalties, if the book sells well. The academic review process is grueling, and production values are high. The emphasis is quality, always quality. Foundations and donors fund series of books such as the River Books, sponsored by the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, spotlighting the Brazos, the Colorado, the Neches, the Nueces and more.

Imagine being the finger on the pulse of a newly hatched concept by a Texas icon such as Stephen Harrigan, Andy Sansom or the late John Graves, or being the outstretched hand to a biologist or artist who is uncertain he or she can write a book. (It’s hard to tell which thrills Shannon more.) She has shepherded them all to completion and can now look back with pride at all the awards and, more importantly, the body of work itself.

“While Graves’ memorable trip down the Brazos will forever remain the classic Texas river book, paddling the Colorado with Margie in River of Contrasts and canoeing the Rio Grande with Ben in The River and the Wall sit very well on the same shelf,” she says of artist Margie Crisp and filmmaker Ben Masters and their books for the press.

Someday, on that shelf, and many more, tomorrow’s storytellers will find Shannon’s collection of knowledge, woven into the fabric of Texas itself through language and imagery. They’ll learn from these books, live their lives and add their own stories. These books have brought to the rest of us an understanding of natural Texas, how to respect and care for it.

“These books are benchmarks of what has happened in the latter part of the 20th and the early part of the 21st century — they will always be that record of where we were,” Shannon says. “This is where we were in conservation. This is where we were in climate change. This is where we were in endangered species. This is where we were in acquisition for public lands. Whatever the topic, it is just a mark of where humanity and, in this case, Texans were.”


 Courtesy cowgirl hall of fame

Drama Queen of Texas

Nearly every Texas bucket list includes a trip to the scarlet gash of the Panhandle’s Palo Duro Canyon, with its mysterious hoodoos and candy-striped cliff walls. No visit to the country’s second-largest canyon is complete without staying till sunset on a summer night for the no-holds-barred, epic musical set against the backdrop of those walls.

In the park’s natural amphitheater, using pomp and pageantry, special effects and dancing waters, Texas tells the story of Panhandle settlers in the 1800s and ends with a fireworks display. Patrons filter back to their campsites or drive back to nearby Canyon or Amarillo.

Interestingly, the woman who conceived a show filled with so much Texas pride didn’t even get here till she was 35. Born in 1911 in Minnesota, Margaret Pease Harper spent her childhood in Illinois. After earning her master’s degree, she spent some time accompanying her father, a famed oratorio singer who sometimes performed in historical pageants.

She married in 1939, following her husband first to Peru and eventually to West Texas State Teacher’s College (now West Texas A&M University) in Canyon, where she taught piano lessons and followed a dream that now lives beyond her lifetime.

Margaret loved the history and beauty of her new home, visualizing the canyon as the perfect setting for a historical drama. Her enthusiasm garnered support for the idea, and she persuaded Pulitzer-winning playwright Paul Green to write it. Six years later, the first performance hit the Pioneer Amphitheater stage in July 1966. Two million attended during the first 25 years; Margaret also led marketing efforts.

Margaret helped found the Lone Star Ballet and received many honors before her death in 1991. Texas carries on her dream.

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