Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters via Flickr. Licensed under CC.

In 1997, J. David Bamberger commissioned the world’s largest man-made bat cave, to be built on a large tract of parched land in the Texas Hill Country he had purchased almost 30 years earlier. The cave cost at least $170,000 and was dubbed the Chiroptorium, a marriage of auditorium and chiroptera, the taxonomic order for bats. Its structure consisted of three domes—eight thousand square feet of roosting space—made from twenty tons of rebar sprayed with gunite, a mixture of sand, water, and cement most often used in the construction of in-ground pools. “I wanted to demonstrate that man-made habitat can mitigate man-made damage,” Bamberger told a reporter for BATS magazine.

Specifically, he wanted to provide an alternate habitat for Mexican free-tailed bats, which weigh about as much as a AAA battery and can, in a single night, fly over sixty miles from home and then back while eating their own weight in bugs.

This species also roosts in the nearby Bracken Cave, the world’s largest bat colony and one of the highest known concentrations of mammals on the planet. When Bamberger built his Chiroptorium, Bracken Cave was at risk of being developed, and he wanted to create a template for allowing threatened bats to survive.

The press loves an unusual gamble. Skeptics took to calling the Chiroptorium “Bamberger’s Folly,” and Texas Monthly and The New York Times both asked, “Will they come?” For the first four years, almost none did. But in 2003, Bamberger noticed dead bats on the ground below a bank of observation windows in the cave and realized that the glass reflected light from the entrance, creating the illusion of another way out. He had the windows covered, and soon, thousands of bats arrived, followed by more the next summer. Bamberger later told the Boston Globe, “All of a sudden—bam!—bats came out of there for 21 minutes. I had tears running down my face… My God, I was vindicated.” The Chiroptorium is now home to some two hundred thousand bats.

Bamberger’s Folly. A consummate storyteller, Bamberger has adopted this phrase as his own, a name for the period of doubt and disbelief preceding an earned success. It’s as if he’s added a wait-and-see clause to the word folly. Merriam-Webster’s definition is particularly worth quoting because of the sample sentence it provides: “Paying so much for that land was folly, since it was all rocks and scrubs and trees.” The dictionary employs the breadth of the following definitions for folly: “lack of good sense,” “criminally or tragically foolish,” and “an excessively costly or unprofitable undertaking.” The term is deliciously apt, because folly also refers to those buildings and ruins constructed by wealthy landowners—particularly in 18th- and 19th-century England—as non-functional, ornamental additions to a landscape. If the bats hadn’t come, the Chiroptorium would just be an expensive hole in an artificial hill.

Folly works for Bamberger precisely because, in his case, it’s erroneous. In using it, he claims vindication over his naysayers and ownership over his story. Which means that, in this context, an act can only be accurately considered a folly once its outcome is determined: a failed gamble is remembered as foolish, but risks like Bamberger’s, which prove worthwhile, turn out not to be follies at all. Bamberger’s Folly can be applied not only to the bat cave but to Bamberger’s entire ranching endeavor—now known as Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve—which has been a larger experiment in mitigating man-made damage.

This is how the story, as Bamberger tells it, always begins. Fifty years ago, in 1969, he set out to buy the worst parcel of land in the Texas Hill Country. And he did,: a three-thousand-acre tract without a single dependable stream or spring, choked with Ashe juniper trees and covered with thin limestone soil. “I liked the hills,” he told me recently. “I liked the stone. And I was also looking for something that was pretty badly managed historically, because I wanted to test out some of the ideas that I’d developed.” These were ideas about low-cost, long-term ways to restore damaged land.

Over the next few years, Bamberger and a small team worked to replace the Ashe juniper, known locally as cedar, with native grasses. They bought a used bulldozer and razed the dense thickets in the valleys and on the flat tops of the hills. They walked the slopes with chainsaws and—the story goes—wore out thirty-eight saws in the process. In one photograph from the early ’70s, heaps of juniper smolder on a hillside. In another, Bamberger’s son sits on a tractor, turning up the rocky soil. Another photograph from 1975 shows Bamberger himself tossing handfuls of grass seed from a hip pouch. It’s twilight. In the flash, he looks the same as he does now: his white hair falling over his forehead, his mouth set. The ground is strewn with chunks of limestone; the sky is lavender, and the trees at the cleared edge of the field are matte black. The seeds hang in the air, pale gold, mid-throw.

Now, at 5,500 acres, Selah is one of the largest habitat-restoration projects in Texas, with a stated mission to “teach ethical land stewardship—by example and outreach.” Today, over three thousand people visit Selah each year to learn about land management and conservation. True to Bamberger’s bootstraps ethos, some of these are private landowners, there to learn how to best take care of their propertiex. Thanks to his leadership, more properties in the Hill Country are now healthy and covered in grass.

For those Texans who don’t own land, though, nature is difficult to visit; less than one half of one percent of the state’s total area is natural land with public access (its western neighbor, New Mexico, has 11.2 percent). Bamberger’s small staff works with schools across Texas to bring in over two thousand young people a year—many from low-income families—for day- to week-long field trips. A former principal of Austin’s Pickle Elementary School has noted that science scores improved dramatically after his students visited the ranch. “Just being able to be in the outdoors, for students who normally live in the city and don’t have those experiences, seeing land formations and biological systems, it’s just awesome.”

***

I first came to the Selah as a student on a field trip. I was eleven, and I kept coming back—first as a camper, then as a counselor and intern—for most of my teens. I visited Bamberger again on a morning in late December 2017, and we sat and talked in the workshop behind his ranch-style house. From a long wooden table flanked by tall windows and bookshelves, we overlooked a low pasture, Windsong, named for how the breeze makes the wire fencing sing. The grass was thick and healthy, a slope of winter yellows dotted with small stands of juniper. These days, it’s almost impossible to imagine the old Selah, without water or grass. But what’s striking about this transformation isn’t just the before and after—it’s that change is implementable. Paradise can be reconstituted in a dead zone. An ecosystem can be brought back from the brink.

Driving through the main gate to meet Bamberger, I passed almost a dozen cedar-post signs, each representing a different regional or national recognition, among them the Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award and the Arbor Day Foundation’s Good Steward Award. The signs send a message: in this place, success is the result of hope, competence, and hard work.

These ideas of success and transformation figure largely in the story of Selah, which Bamberger and his full-time staff of four relate to every visitor who passes through the gate. Listening to Bamberger tell it—a narrative he’s been adding to for half a century, and must have told thousands of times—feels akin to sitting through a well-rehearsed sermon and, despite a wealth of misgivings, being moved to genuine tears. With his electric blue eyes and broad-gesturing hands, Bamberger is a natural-born storyteller. “There’s a knack to it,” he said when I mentioned his skill. “A lot of people have the knowledge, but they don’t know how to deliver. It has to do with body language, it has to do with your voice, it has to do with emphasis.” Bamberger the mythmaker, Bamberger the myth. Through his storytelling, he’s taken on the weight and quality of legend: the rancher who wore out thirty-eight chainsaws in a quest to change the land.

Part of why this rancher is so compelling is because, just like Selah’s story—her aquifers replenishing themselves from nothing—his own is textbook rags-to-riches, the quintessence of the American Dream. Favoring phrases like “I knew all the time” and “I always said,” he tends to simplify events to exclude any evolving intentions or fruitless mistakes. And the way he tells it, he’s not just a self-made man, but that rare beast of the national imagination: the tycoon for whom wealth was never the ends, but always the means. In his case, the end was restoring and protecting damaged land, the very material from which the American Dream is cultivated. But any listener, even one steeped in the well-honed narrative of Selah like I am, has to ask: Does Bamberger’s story offer a false hope in the myth that hard work and determination pay off? And does Bamberger’s expensive private project really hold the seed for staving off, or reversing, climate disaster?

***

Bamberger was born in Massillon, Ohio, in 1928, a year before Black Tuesday. Jeffrey Greene describes his childhood in Water from Stone, a book that is part-biography of Bamberger and part-history of his ranch. Bamberger’s father, Titus, sold cars, and his mother, Hester, though trained as a nurse, cared for him and his brothers at home. Massillon was a steel town, and when all three boys developed smog-related asthma, the family relocated to a small farm in nearby Navarre, where they lived in a wooden shack without electricity or running water. Their time in the country was both difficult and idyllic, but money was too tight, and they eventually moved back to Massillon. When the war began, Titus took a job as a security guard for Union Drawn Steel.

Every story from Bamberger’s childhood—and he tells many that foreshadow his later success—emphasizes either his early mind for business or his growing interest in conservation. Greene recounts several of the former: young Bamberger hawking wild berries at his father’s car dealership, young Bamberger trapping muskrats and skunks to sell their hides. Bamberger’s childhood stories about conservation center around a single figure, the novelist Louis Bromfield. He told me, “Bromfield motored into the hills of Ohio, thirty or so miles from where I lived, to see if he could find his grandparents’ farm he worked on as a kid. In a nutshell, when he found it, it was an abandoned piece of real estate, gutted and eroded and grown up with briar and brush. It was, quote, ‘farmed out,’ unquote. And it was what he tackled, and what he did.” Bromfield named this place Malabar Farm, and Bamberger’s mother took him there several times. “To her,” he remembered, “Bromfield was everything. He just represented what farming was all about.” The pastoral idyll made a deep impression on her son as well. “I used to call it Mecca because they had cows,” and a threshing machine, and an apple orchard. When Bamberger talks about this place now—pictures of Bromfield and Malabar Farm hang on the walls of his workshop at Selah—it’s as proof that his is not a tale of whim or chance, but rather one of childhood intention fulfilled.

In October 1942, when Bamberger was fourteen, a steelyard crane collapsed, killing his father. Just before his sixteenth birthday, his older brother—a first lieutenant in the Army Air Forces—was declared missing in action after his plane went down in a bombing offensive over Dieppe, France. Bamberger was seventeen when Bromfield published Pleasant Valley, a book about the initial years of restoring Malabar Farm. He told me, “My mom gave me his book, and I carried that with me and it really pointed me. I knew all the time what I wanted to do. And I have done that.”

It took him a few years to find his start. After high school, he was drafted for an eighteen-month stint in the army, where he trained as an information and education specialist—“The true job title for it,” he told Greene, the author of Water from Stone, “was ‘propagandist.’” He went AWOL briefly in 1947 to marry his high school sweetheart, Donna. They had the first of three children in 1949. The next year, he graduated from Kent State University with a degree in business administration, and soon after he started selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door—a scheme he was convinced would make him wealthy. He had, Greene notes, “the body language and emotional appeals of an evangelical preacher,” and he wasn’t afraid to manipulate people into buying a machine. He told Greene, “You can embarrass the hell out of them.”

When he didn’t make much money doing this in Ohio, he and Donna followed the vacuum business to Oklahoma City, then to Texas, where his ambitions began paying off. By the mid-1950s, he was head of a Kirby vacuum distribution center in San Antonio and was running a profitable real estate business on the side. In the early 1960s, a man named George W. Church, Jr. signed on as a Kirby salesman. Church’s father had recently died, and before long he left vacuum sales to direct the family business, a San Antonio restaurant chain called Church’s Fried Chicken to Go. When Church Jr. decided to expand, Bamberger put up $55,000 in exchange for shares and came onboard to oversee the franchising effort. He later told The New York Times, “From the perspective I had as a door-to-door salesman I thought chicken and the fast-food business were going to be one of the big things of the future.” He was right. When Church’s went public in 1969, he owned 17 percent of the company and sold fifteen thousand of his 164,281 shares. Two weeks later, he acquired the driest, most juniper-choked property he could find.

The words Bamberger used to describe Malabar Farm before its restoration—“an abandoned piece of real estate, gutted and eroded and grown up with briar and brush”—also describe the Selah he purchased in 1969. Most of the property was a “cedar brake,” suffocated in Ashe junipers, and there was no surface water—no lakes, no live creeks. As a result, biodiversity was very poor. Much of the Hill Country is still this way today, but it wasn’t always. When Robert Thomas Hill conducted the first major geological surveys of Texas in the late 1890s, he described the Edwards Plateau, of which the Hill Country is the eastern edge: “In general it is covered with a thick growth of nutritious grass and is without forest.”

***

Seen from the drive in, Selah looks like a slab of wood trenched by termites—the flat-topped hills and ridges riddled with canyons that have, in places, widened into level valleys. On the low points of the ranch, the first layer of rock beneath the soil is known as Glen Rose limestone; the higher places on the ranch (and in the region) are capped in Edwards limestone, tunneled with holes like the bones of a bird. Since Edwards limestone holds water, these high points often contain aquifers, with the impermeable Glen Rose serving as a natural base. Back in the 1890s, when Hill made his survey, the springs from these aquifers were likely still flowing strong.

So, what happened to make this swath of Texas lose its water? Before the ranchers came, this part of the Hill Country was home to the Lipan Apaches, who came to Central Texas around 1600 after clashes with the Comanches to the north. They grew corn and squash in temporary camps, and hunted the migrating buffalo. These patterns of movement, by human and herd, gave the land the opportunity to rest, the grass a chance to regrow. But land agents began to visit the area around 1821, and the county’s first white settlers built homes along the Blanco River in 1854. That same year marked the establishment of the Brazos Indian Reservation, and many of the Lipan Apaches fled to Mexico. By 1858, the year Blanco County was established, only an estimated 120 Lipan Apaches remained in Texas.

In their place came settlers. By 1860, Blanco County was home to 1,218 of them, plus thirteen thousand cattle and more than nineteen thousand sheep. Only 30 years later, the settler population had almost quadrupled, to 4,649, and the cattle and sheep count had nearly doubled. These were largely set to graze in fenced pastures, which restricted the movement of the herds and gave the land little chance to recover. Unlike buffalo, cattle and sheep tend to graze preferentially, clearing an area of its grass before turning to young juniper, which, though native, can quickly overtake an area. To make matters worse, the settlers prevented the wildfires that would naturally have kept these trees in check. The grass disappeared as Ashe juniper, which had previously only flourished in canyons and on steep hillsides, took over. On average, a mature Ashe juniper pulls thirty-three gallons of water from the soil every day; the trees’ dense canopies also catch rainfall and block sunlight, making it difficult for underlying vegetation to survive. With nothing to anchor it, dry soil becomes vulnerable to erosion, and the limestone beneath is exposed.

These changes affected the aquifers. To demonstrate how, Bamberger has built a “rain machine.” It consists of two water-filled plastic bins studded with hypodermic needles, mounted above a box of potted native grasses and a box containing a young Ashe juniper in rocky soil. Each of these boxes tilts, as if on a hillside, into two jars—one labeled “Run-Off” to catch any water streaming from the surface, and one labeled “Ground H2O” for any water that soaks through to the aquifer level. When “rain” from the needles hits the first box, the grass filters it slowly into the soil; as a result, this “Run-Off” jar is nearly empty, while the aquifer jar is full to the brim. When rain falls on the juniper, though, the water has no opportunity to seep into the ground. Its “Run-Off” jar overflows with water and eroded soil, and its “Ground H2O” jar is dry.

So, to restore Selah’s water, Bamberger razed the cedar brakes (leaving about five hundred acres untouched, as old-growth junipers provide a crucial habitat for two endangered species of songbird). He planted native grasses, and added terraces and berms to counteract erosion on the slopes. There were false starts here, too: the overpriced grass seed Bamberger purchased before he knew better, the well-drilling business he began when he doubted the springs would ever actually run. Greene writes about a skeptical soil conservation agent, who said, “‘Now that you’ve denuded the place, you’ll get a five-inch rain, and your expensive seed will be washed into the valley.’” That spring, though, the hillsides were covered in green shoots. Now, fifty years later, Bamberger always gives his rain machine demonstration on a stone patio overlooking Madrone Lake, the largest of twenty-seven spring-fed ponds and streams at Selah. Massive cypresses stand along the shore. Dragonflies skim the water in summer. Birds sing. To date, 213 bird species have been identified in the area. This number was 143 in 1997. It was just 50 when Bamberger arrived.

***

Talking about Bamberger, it’s hard not to keeping returning to the idea of the American Dream. He’s almost exactly as old as the term, in fact, which was coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931. Adams defined it then as “a vision of a better, deeper, richer life for every individual, regardless of the position in society which he or she may occupy by the accident of birth.” It wasn’t long, though, before the phrase was considered synonymous with obtaining extreme wealth, and then with ownership of property, specifically a single-family home.

Of course, the urge to own property was crucial in America long before Adams gave it a name. It’s what drove the ranchers and settlers to subdivide and fence their Texas land—and, in doing so, alter it forever. Since Bamberger purchased his property in 1969, housing developments built to accommodate the rise in homeownership have begun encroaching on all sides. It’s a fascinating contradiction: Bamberger’s rags-to-riches story and dedication to private land are emblematic of the American Dream, but he’s also working to ensure that Selah will last in perpetuity as a counterbalance to destruction wrought by that same ethos. The preserve is endowed, and its status as a 501(c)3 organization, overseen by a board of directors, protects it—hypothetically—from all future development. “I always said I wanted to do everything Bromfield did,” he told me, “except one: he died stone broke.”

Because of this, Malabar Farm’s future was for a while uncertain; it’s now a state park. But Bamberger isn’t about to leave his own legacy up to chance. “It’s…” he started, then paused. “Emotional, because my children don’t inherit it, and yet I have my son and two grandchildren—they’re board members.” Bamberger, who turned ninety last June, still plans to play an active role on the ranch and is increasingly interested in the future of its educational programs. “This is part of my preaching, and I’m going to repeat it: 51 percent of what this is all about is taking care of Mother Nature. Trees, grass, and all the life on it, and water. And 49 percent of everything is education.”

Unfortunately, since Bamberger’s form of conservation is reliant on private ownership, not regulated government intervention, the great experiment of Selah can’t be widely or easily replicated. Bamberger explained, “The first tract of land I bought here, I paid $124 an acre for. That same land today is worth $10,000 an acre. Not a bad investment. But as I added on, to reach the 5,500 acres I have now, I was paying about $1,200 an acre. Even that makes it pretty difficult for somebody to buy much.”

***

I hadn’t returned to Selah in years, and I was surprised by how it still holds, for me, a record of self like strata in limestone: versions I’ve grown through, stories I’ve repurposed to explain who I am today. This, I think, is not an unusual attitude towards Selah for the people who have spent significant time there. After all, it’s a place built by storytelling, and Bamberger encourages his visitors to think about their own histories through this same lens. One stop on every field trip is at a small building called Hes’s Country Store, after his mother, Hester. He told The New Yorker, “When she died, I went back to her house, and she had taped a label on everything. She’d written, ‘This cradle your great-grandmother came across from Europe with,’ and ‘I bought this knife for twenty-five cents when I was twelve years old, to pick dandelions.’ She’d left all those things. I didn’t inherit anything like money. What I did inherit I keep here, and I call it heritage conservation.” Heritage conservation—based on the idea that history, like a habitat or species, will vanish if the conditions for its survival are taken away—is an especially poignant and fraught concept in a region whose earlier inhabitants, the Lipan Apache, were killed and forced south while their land was altered beyond recognition.

There’s an important distinction to be made between heritage conservation and habitat restoration in situations such as this: though environmentally crucial, restoring the land is also a way of removing physical evidence of harm done. Selah now looks much like it did before the first white settlers, but the region’s history of plunder cannot similarly be put right. Heritage conservation and land stewardship are often aligned, however, probably because the nation’s identity is so inseparable from its land. On the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service, the program’s acting director put it this way: “Our national parks embody the idea of the American dream. Parks are created and protected by dreamers who saw the value of preserving these special places that are tangible reminders of our country’s rich history.”

The drive into Selah begins with a landmark that is both warning and, in the ornamental sense, folly: a tombstone Bamberger salvaged from a neighboring property in the mid-70s and had inscribed:

IN MEMORY

OF MAN 2,000,000 B.C. – A.D. 20 ?

HE WHO ONCE

DOMINATED THE EARTH

DESTROYED IT

WITH HIS WASTES

HIS POISONS AND

HIS OWN NUMBERS

The question of folly lies at the heart of the debate over climate change, which has developed in the decades since Selah’s founding. Climate change is perhaps the greatest human folly—the really big one—made even more tragically foolish by the fact that our contributing actions persist long after the approaching outcome has been made clear. It’s reminiscent of the ranchers on the grasslands, eking out the very last of the land’s nutrition for their herds. In keeping with his tombstone warning, Bamberger is in the process of establishing Selah as a place of witness to the effects of climate change over time. He and his staff have partnered with several universities to institute a biological survey that can be repeated every ten years, so that long into the future, Selah will “have a good record, a climate change record, keeping all the weather, the heat, the drought, and everything else.”

It turns out that in this kind of survey, the most valuable climate change indicators are insects, and newly up-and-running at Selah is a facility where, hypothetically, future scientists will be able to access insect samples and data showing what the land and climate were like way back when. This is the empirical equivalent of labeling every object in the house for our children to find once we’re gone, and it throws us into the role of forebearer, of folly, of heritage to be conserved. This deliberate act of preservation also demands acknowledgment of the dizzying scale of geologic time, of all the histories that have played out over this earth before vanishing. How can we ever preserve it all? How can we, with our manmade solutions, mitigate the loss?

I was at Selah the summer after Bamberger covered the Chiroptorium’s observation windows. This was the year he knew he’d done it, the year the bats really began to arrive, and I sat with the other campers outside the still-new cave to watch the bats come out for the night. It’s easy to remember: part of the beauty of an emergence is that (to the non-biologist) it’s always the same, the way a religious service is always the same, both ancient and somehow newly created every time. The Chiroptorium’s mouth is cartoonishly cave-like: a large, black hole in a hill. High-pitched chirps and whirs come out of it, just a few at first and then more, until by sunset the small canyon is filled with an electric roar that is something like white noise, or an engine, or cicadas, and yet none of these. It is the sound of bats dropping from their roosts and circling within the cave, gaining momentum.

It happens gradually, and then all at once. A few bats dart out, dizzy and erratic, to clear the trees and disappear. Then the noise in the cave builds to its breaking point and the mouth turns on like a faucet, letting out a single current of bats like a muscle, like a column of smoke—each bat emitting its own cheeps of echolocation, each pair of wings a quiet snap, each pale belly glowing as the ribbon wraps east over the trees. After a moment, you can see it winding through the pink clouds toward its dispersal.

Emma Hine

Emma Hine is the author of the poetry collection Stay Safe, which received the 2019 Kathryn A. Morton Prize and is forthcoming from Sarabande Books. Her work has recently appeared in The Offing and The Southern Review, among other publications. She works the Academy of American Poets and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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3 Comments on “American Folly, American Dream

  1. I missed the mention of Margaret Bamberger. I really feel like she was a part of making it all work that should have been mentioned. I remember her fondly in a wildflower I class I took there many years ago.

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