Seven miles down the road, a bridge spans a river. It’s a big, muddy, moody river—although nothing like so moody as it used to be.
For three hundred years this river has been known as the Brazos, and for half that time it has shared its name with the county in which I reside. Native Texans say this southern style, pronouncing the “a” like the “a” in black; newcomers from the North say it Spanish style, pronouncing the “a” like the “a” in brassiere. They may do this to honor the original Spanish, but more probably to dishonor the native Texans.
The name Brazos is a diminutive, like Jim, or Mike, or Pete. The river’s full name is Los Brazos de Dios, which translates as “the Arm of God.”* In 1690 the first Spanish governor named it Espiritu Santo, but by 1720 this designation was yielding to Los Brazos de Dios. When Tennessee woodsmen poured out onto the prairies a hundred years later, this august title had been diminished to Brazos. It remained an arm, but to whom this arm belonged not all were prepared to say.
We do not know the name of the Spaniard who first gave the river this name, or the circumstances that moved him to do so. The tradition is that he was in a party of very thirsty Spaniards who, staggering over the parched prairie, came at last to the bank of the Brazos and beheld its turbid waters in a rapture of pious thanksgiving.
I find this tradition dubious for reasons both geographical and theological. The Texas prairies often bake beneath a blazing sky, but they are very far from being a desert. Water is nowhere far to find, particularly if one is a Spaniard accustomed to making his way over the seared uplands of Mexico and Iberia. And “the Arm of God” is normally a symbol of God’s might, not his mercy. It was, for instance, the Arm of God that caused the Canaanites to quake before the advancing Israelites (Exodus 15:16), as it was the Arm of God that cowed the haughty Egyptians (Deuteronomy 9:29).
The name Brazos might have been born amidst the grateful slurps and splashes of thirsty Spaniards, but I think it more probable that it was born at the awesome spectacle of this river in flood.
As I said, the Brazos a moody river, and a magnificent and terrible flood was, up until about fifty years ago, one its most characteristic moods. It would repose for a time on its bed of clay, permitting men on horseback to cross its fords without wetting their boots, and then would suddenly rise sixty feet and swamp its floodplain in a boiling brown lake that was four miles wide. Until I see evidence to the contrary, I will be inclined to suppose that the Brazos was christened by a Spaniard who came upon the river when it was in this mood, for in this mood it most forcefully suggests the Arm of God.
And even if it wasn’t christened in these circumstances, and even if the legend of the slurping and splashing Spaniards should be proven beyond reasonable doubt, I will continue to believe that Brazos is “a fit and fatal name.”
* * * * *
It is only with difficulty that a modern man will be able to understand what I mean by “a fit and fatal name.” This is because we moderns are very careless in our onomastics, believing a name is little more than an arbitrary handle, and that we are therefore free to assign names more or less at whim. This is nowhere more evident than in the names we give to geographic features such as mountains and streams, which with typically modern egotism we first think to name after ourselves.
Had the Brazos been named by a more modern man, we might know it today as the Kuykendahl or the Travis. Had the Brazos been named by a perfectly modern man, we might know it today as River 28c.
When we say that something is “fit” (or “fitting”), we mean suited to its circumstances. When I say that a meal is “fit for a king,” I mean that it would not be out of place on a king’s table. When I question the “fit” of a new pair of trousers, I ask whether they are cut to the size of my waist and legs, as well as in a fashion that fits what I take to be my personality.
And so it is with a fit name. Muddy Creek is a name that fits a creek that is actually muddy. Valley View is an unfit name for a street from which no valley is in view. Even in the modern world, many people still understand this (although it does not appear that many of them are employed by property developers).
To say that a name is “fatal” is to say that it fits what it names in a deeper sense. A fatal name goes beyond fitness to visible appearances and is suited to the metaphysical meaning or cosmic significance of what it names. We see this in the prophetic names of characters in the Bible, most especially in those cases where a man’s name is changed when he recognizes or accepts his divinely ordained fate. Israel is the fatal or prophetic name of Jacob. Paul is the fatal or prophetic name of Saul. Peter is the fatal or prophetic name of Simon.
In his play Agamemnon (458 B.C.), Aeschylus tells us that Helen of Troy had a “fit and fatal name” that foretold the cataclysmic war that she would occasion. Like the Brazos River, she was named by an “unknown seer” who was only “guessing” at the destiny of this infant girl, but who was at a deeper level “inspired” and “instinct with prescience of what Fate decreed.”
“Who was the unknown seer whose voice
Uttered at venture, but instinct
With prescience of what Fate decreed
Guessing infallibly, made choice
Of a child’s name, and deftly linked
Symbol with truth, and name with deed,
Naming, inspired, the glittering bride
Of spears, for whom men killed and died,
Helen, the Spoiler? On whose lips
Was born that fit and fatal name,
To glut the sea with spoil of ships?”
(trans. Philip Vellacott, 1966)
* * * * *
A name is fit and fatal when it expresses a “poetic truth,” which is what Aristotle calls a truth about the higher reality (Poetics, chapter 25). It is a name that points to the absolute—fatal—significance, of that which it names. The name Brazos is fit and fatal because it is poetic in this sense. It is not simply a pretty name (however pronounced); it is not simply a romantic name (as if romance is ever simple); it is also and essentially a name that salvages the river from what Plato called the shadowland of everyday appearances.
* * * * *
An early Texas historian began to grasp the poetic truth of the river’s name when he wrote,
“The name of Brazos . . . is significant of its character; it being placid and beneficent in repose—mighty and terrible in wrath.” (David B. Edward, The History of Texas , p. 20)
What Edward failed to understand is that the beneficence of the Brazos was, like the Arm of God itself, inseparable from its wrath. This is because the fabulous soils of the Brazos Bottom were laid down, not by a placid river in repose, but by a raging river mighty and terrible to behold.
When the Arm of God gets to work, it is best not to stand in its way.
Here you can see the Eocene clays of the Stone City Bluff, laid down tens of millions of years ago and exposed where the river runs up against the western wall of its ancestral valley. These do not decompose into impoverished soils, but under modern conditions they are the soils of rangeland and scrub.
Here you can see the Pleistocene sediments of the Brazos Bottom, laid down within the past million years by great floods that bore them down from west Texas and choked the ancestral valley with alluvium. That reddish hue tells us that these soils are not from around here (rather like the pronunciation Bräzos), but that they came from Cretaceous and Permian limestone in the high plains far to the west. These are exotic soils from a far country, and they are among the best in the world.
Those western plains are mostly underlain by limestone, which decomposes into excellent soil. Those plains are also, at the same time, rather on the dry side, and this can leave that excellent soil with very little to do. This was particularly true during the Pleistocene interglacial periods, when the earth was relatively warm and dry, and thousands and thousands of square miles of decomposed limestone lay more or less naked to the sky.
All of that decomposed limestone lay up there on the high plains, just waiting for the Arm of God to sweep it down into the Brazos Valley. And the Arm of God obliged. It didn’t rain often in those warm interglacial periods, but when it did rain, that bare earth moved.
And when it moved it moved from a dry land to a green country where there was plenty for that excellent soil to do—particularly when those Tennessee woodsmen showed up two hundred years ago and began to stick cottonseeds in it.
Without those Tennessee woodsmen and their cottonseeds, there would be no Brazos County. Without those exotic soils in the Brazos Bottom, there would have been no Tennessee woodsmen and no cottonseeds. And without the Arm of God, there would have been no exotic soils in the Brazos Bottom. So, you see, it all comes back to that.
* * * * *
We all have had occasion to quarrel with the Arm of God, which seems as often bent on our destruction as on working us weal. And so it was with those Tennessee woodsmen and their descendants—some of whom grew very fat on the soils that the Arm of God had carried to this valley, and all of whom learned to fear its terrible floods. To revert to the language of that old Texas historian, these men approved the Arm of God when it was “placid and beneficent,” but grew restless and argumentative when it waxed “mighty and terrible in wrath.”
And thus it was that they determined to, as it were, bind the Arm of God and fetter the Brazos with dams. And thus it was that this moody river has been rendered, for the time being, not quite so moody. This cannot last forever, for the Arm of God will not be fettered, and has now quietly turned to the task of removing all that fat red soil, and bearing it down to the sea.
It seems the Arm of God is bound to chasten, be it at leisure or in haste. And if Brazos is, indeed, a fit and fatal name, we must suppose this will always be so.
* The Spanish brazos, or Arm, comes from the Latin and Greek words for arm (brachium, brakhion). These roots gave English speakers the words brace, embrace, and bracelet.