Hugh Fitzsimons III
Hugh "Sunny" Asa Fitzsimons III died on Sunday, May 16, at age 67. Credit: Courtesy / Joanne Herrera via Trinity University Publishing

Hugh Asa “Sunny” Fitzsimons III is a beekeeper and bison herder, a third-generation South Texas rancher both blessed and burdened by his family’s legacy of trying to tame the rich, harsh Brush Country, a landscape that inevitably tames those who choose to call it home.

He also is a San Antonian with a native inclination for literature and history; water and land conservation; educated, liberal thought; and, as it turns out, a sometimes-unrequited tolerance for his fellow ranchers and neighbors.

Those who might not know the prominent Fitzsimons family name, or his Shape Ranch in Dimmit County, might recognize his two businesses, Thunder Heart Bison and Native Nectar Guajillo Honey. Fitzsimons’ other calling in life is guardian of the scarce water below the ground in Dimmit County – protecting it, defending it, depending on it, fearing the verdict against his generation for the water table’s eventual reduction and contamination.

I’ve known Fitzsimons for a number of years, but not well, I realized, until I read through his new book, A Rock Between Two Rivers: Fracturing A Texas Family Ranch, published this month by Trinity University Press. It’s a sensitively written volume, part memoir, part essay, a reflection on history and life over the millennia on the thorny, impassable brush country of Shape Ranch, and on the equally archaic water management and right of capture laws still at play in Texas.

Fitzsimons fears a future of water insecurity in South Texas, driven by the mindless drive of those endowed with mineral wealth. No one in that world, he suggests, is willing to weigh future consequences at the expense of present opportunity.

A Rock Between Two Rivers by Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III Credit: Courtesy / Trinity Press

Fitzsimons will read and sign books at The Twig Bookshop at the Pearl Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.

San Antonio is probably more influenced than any other major U.S. city by ranch culture and the families descended from the pioneers, carpetbaggers, politicians, and immigrants who one way or the other acquired the big ranches of South Texas, many still intact today, thanks to the windfall wealth pumped out of the ground in the form of oil and gas.

For those of us drawn to this South Texas subculture, Fitzsimons offers an unusually honest, sometimes painful accounting of what it means to inherit the mantle of big ranch ownership. Mineral-rich ranches have birthed dynastic families who have gone on to rule not only their lands and local government, but Texas politics and beyond.

That same ranch wealth and power can divide families and siblings and set brother against brother in a bitter story as familiar as the Old Testament. Such is the case with the Fitzsimons’, although I can’t recall Sonny even referencing his brother and sister by their first names in the book. Yet even he benefits directly from the very fracturing, drilling, and production activity he seemingly abhors.

“I have yet to meet the rancher who turns down mineral money, including myself, ” he confesses.

There is plenty else in this book, from Fitzsimons’ periodic encounters with immigrants traveling north across his land, some hostile and bent on doing harm, others pitifully near death and asking only for water.

Most of all, A Rock Between Two Rivers is the story of Sunny himself, a man who broods about the future of his family and the fate and welfare of his share of the ranch his grandfather established, not quite able to come to terms with its division, his family’s division, and the contradiction of wealth by the barrel and the attendant environmental damage wrought by its extraction.

American Bison graze on the Shape Ranch in Dimmit County. Credit: Courtesy / Ansen Seale

In my experience, Fitzsimons has always been a quiet man. Smart, well-read, and certainly opinionated, but a quiet man, someone who has spent a lot of time outdoors alone, comfortable in his own skin. The most eloquent passages, for me, come as he traverses his land or wanders eight-and-a-half miles south of his ranch along the Rio Grande, solo and in silence.

Slipping his kayak into the Rio Grande swelled by recent rains, he writes, “In no time the signs, smells, and sounds of humankind all but vanish. Red-winged blackbirds send their gurgling friendly greetings to one another as I drift. Stopping my stroke I listen and hear what I have been searching for and missing all these years: silence, beautiful, deep. I am here, soaking up the wonder of what there is so little left of in the world.

“It almost feels as if I am the first person to behold this beauty. I revel in each bend, every canebrake, bird, and tree I float past. An osprey, the sometime resident of the river, circles overhead and works the air currents as it gains height and perspective. It is hunting for river carp using sun, shade, and eyes that can see the slightest change in the river’s ripple from five hundred yards above.”

Few of us find the time and space to reflect so observantly on our surroundings or to look inward and explore our own defining contradictions. Fitzsimons shares more of himself than many would, and leaves the reader, without at first knowing it, engaging in the same introspection and a longing for the land.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.