a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Excerpt from unpublished manuscript “Making Do With Unrequited Love in Times of Terror”
spreading water and good-will,
food for plantas y gatitos.
As she walks out the front door,
she sees someone hunched over a plant
alongside the sidewalk.
(She knew the day she’d returned home
that people, not birds, had been eating the piquines:
pepper bushes behind the wrought iron fence still held berries—
smooth alizarin swells and wrinkled ancianas hanging tight
while the bush beside the sidewalk was picked green.)
“Señor, esta planta tiene mas frutas.”
She calls out in invitation,
motioning to a branch that drapes over the wrought iron.
The man turns, smiles in recognition
of another chili piquín bush, and approaches.
They chat in lengua mezcla as he picks
and she pulls dry sunflower stalks:
appreciation for the berries: “buena para salud,” “mui rico,”
for the yard with las plantas diferentes—
figs, pomegranate, chaya y nopal
y animales, también—mariposas con muchos colores y abejas…
arañas en las telarañas, gigantic webs…
“En México where I lived, this plant grew everywhere…”
She nods, seeing the landscape in his glistening eyes.
“Donde en México?”
“San Luis de Potosi”
They chat in dialect that is ecosystem, not the monoculture
the city’s code compliance imposes.
When he has picked his fill for the day they exchange names
and he raises his fistful of berries, gently:
“When you want, I will help you here,” he says,
gazing at sombra y luz de los verdes… “no charge,”
“No charge,” he repeats gesturing to his raised, cupped fist.
Martin Street, San Anto, August, 2015
Place of White Herons: a Homecoming Story
I first saw white egrets and herons in the Sand Hill prairies of the Arkansas River basin where, as a young child, I followed my father, a prairie ecologist, on field research. A few years later, I watched cattle egrets in the paddy fields of Orissa (now Odisha), India. I would daydream out the bus window—amongst cattle egrets in rice paddies that ran for miles upon miles as we journeyed to villages for visits with our friends, usually my parents’ former co-workers. So the idea that these birds represented homecoming, return to a familiar place, made good sense to me when I came upon Aztlán, Chicano homeland, place of white herons in Chicanx Literature classes.
Soon after I first moved to San Antonio, I was invited to paint birds for San Anto’s “Barrio Jungle” mural (at El Paso and San Jacinto’s intersection) and I drafted white herons alongside quetzals and hummingbirds. After I’d been in San Antonio long enough to know I was home, I spent time in neighborhoods I favored, and found in the heart of the city’s Westside, a gathering of herons, egrets and cormorants at Elmendorf Park in front of Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU). These birds helped me find my house six blocks away: once I’d seen the birds’ island, I returned at every chance, and one day I saw a “for sale” sign on the casita that, after a few months, became mine, despite bank redlining.
During the move, my parents each came down on bus from Kansas for a week to help me move. My mom helped pack up my belongings, and my dad came the next week for the transport across town. Each evening before dusk, my dad and I would unload the last load before supper and drive my Datsun pick-up over to the park to watch the herons come home to roost on the sprawling branches of trees on the island and along the water’s edge. On weekends and evenings in the following years, I would spend hours in the park, often grading journals and papers. Sometimes I’d be reading students’ essays about their introductions to Aztlán, place of herons, Aztec homeland in the north, as the birds flapped their way across sunset skies toward their communal roost. There were fewer birds in winter, but some have always braved the cold, holding place for spring, when large numbers return, softening the greening branches. As migrants join winter residents, they begin flying in with sticks to build nests. Soon the sound level of the island at sundown rises, as young ones join in.
Nights, I’d drive into OLLU parking lot to see phantom birds, light shrouds against dark skies, their sleep noises indicating life within, joining with barrio sounds, settling into late night. When school was on break, I was stopped occasionally by OLLU patrol wanting to know what I was doing there. “Listening to the birds of Aztlán talk about our barrio.” The university security were unconvinced until I pulled out faculty and library cards; plastic lamination proved convincing protection for me. Over the years, white herons and egrets have offered a sense of solace when I was sad, and celebration when I was happy. They gave a sense of belonging, in a world ordered by a balance of natural and cultural integrity. Their presence makes patterns of profound beauty—markings that read like a map to lead me home.
Westside, San Antonio, TX: my homeplace
I purchased my property in San Antonio (with help from family when the bank turned down my house). I had been in my house in a Westside barrio less than a week when the events of September 11, 2001 happened. I planted autumn herbs during the silence of those September days when planes did not fly. I made High 8 recordings of the sounds and silences of the city as I worked. I didn’t sense the future course—that engendered fear would compel leaders to alter the world’s course, intensifying the ways we threaten, instill fear, and heap violence upon each other.
In purchasing a house, I envisioned a home-place where I had freedom to resuscitate sustainable ways of living not then as salient as today. I wanted to see what my limited income of an adjunct professor could support. In renovating and maintaining my home I’d have a potential model to learn from, and share with neighbors in our lowest-income, city council district. A decade later, a whole house fan, solar attic fan and other “passive” strategies for working with weather to make living spaces comfortable replace central air heating and cooling. A “day-lighting system” replaces electric lights needed in shaded rooms with smallish windows. My yard is planted with biologically and culturally native plants—fruit trees, herbs, vegetables, wildlife hosting habitat. Butterflies, songbirds, pollinators and anole are numerous most days. The quiet of those first days of herb-planting has never returned; rather, traffic has increased with the stream of corporate developers into the inner city.
Over a decade after moving to my neighborhood, I am invited by a community organizer friend, “You’ve got to come to our meeting in your neighborhood!” My friend’s neighborhood association has long been supportive of environmental justice issues, particularly on the Eastside (with San Antonio’s largest number of predominantly African American neighborhoods and cultural institutions)— I had lent my support to these struggles. I respected their combining local and global concerns—they were the first in town to raise issues of global warming in conjunction with condemnation of our dirty coal plants. I was proud I’d moved to San Antonio, the day children brought paper machete coal towers and global warming monsters to our protest in the late 1990s.
“The largest issue in our survey was crime, so we are going to get the crime out.” my friend announces. I’m dubious—I’d been away all summer and hadn’t even locked the front door—but I agree to attend the meeting; I am one of few residents. The police promise to comply with requests for more policing, and extend “crime sweeps” to include code compliance of various kinds. The next day, perhaps coincidentally, the repurposed plastic I had put out to solarize invasive Bermuda grass provokes a warning from Code Compliance: I must remove all “brush, weeds, trash and miscellaneous items.”
The next meeting, the police chief proclaims with vehemence to instill fear: “weeds attract crime.” To me, this translates as: your native habitat (National Wildlife Federation certified) is too scary to exist in this “crime-ridden” area. I worry about my yard, remembering how disheartened a friend had been when Code Compliance mowed down her yard’s oak saplings and native plantitas that she maintained even when disabling pain made it difficult; staying in her son’s home, nearby, she returned regularly to care for her plants. She watered with rainwater collected in repurposed milk bottles even after the water and lights in her home were turned off for lack of funds— until Code Compliance dumped the bottles, considering them rubbish.
I knew her situation was different than mine: Code Compliance negotiates here—the officer acknowledged the plastic was for solarizing—he’d done the same thing, but with new, not repurposed, materials. I am not yet as economically disenfranchised as my friend was at that time. It was her well-off neighbors who had called Code Compliance. On my street, it is drive-bys who don’t live in our barrio. Still, I feared… I began a Letter to the Editor:
My spirit was still elated when I came to a meeting between our Police Chief and those concerned about the Westside. I was happy to see attention given an often-ignored part of town, but felt dissonance at the sole focus on “crime” in our neighborhoods. I live on a street where neighbors look out for each other like familia at its best, and though I empathized with those who testified and was saddened by the violence and loss they experienced, I could not relate to neighborhood fears they described. Despite a survey showing issues like infrastructure improvement were crucial concerns for residents, only crime was discussed. At mention of “sweeps” of our neighborhood…I felt my own fears tremble me…
I was trembling for more than my yard—for something I could not communicate to newspaper editorial readers. I feared my presence at the meetings endangered my street, even as I spoke about it proudly, and received nods to my pleas to consider other needs and to recognize contributions our Westside has made. My neighbors are not the “criminal element” described by people bent on removing it, yet they might appear as such to strangers bent on reform. We are families with young men and women of color, some of whom have already done time in detention. I shudder as I wonder: what will fear compel against us, here?
Mission Road Trailer Park, San Antonio, TX, (2014)
Environmental issues—not raised during SA City Council’s discussion of proposed Mission Road trailer-park removal—are proverbial elephants in the room. Given lack of ecological considerations despite our “Mission Verde,” City Council was wise to postpone voting. That said, the smoke screen of compassionate paternalism prompting Council’s desire for more time violated the Clean Air Act, if only figuratively.
Research shows high-dollar lifestyles are less earth-friendly than thriftier ones, even as proponents point fingers at immigrants and trailer courts, proclaiming the opposite, with no grounds. Environmental considerations—including eco-cultural values this longstanding community’s low-impact way of life offers—must be considered before Council’s zoning decision, because—as Council and audience agreed—the decision-making vis-à-vis Mission Road stands as foundation for the future of our city.
Residents’ testimonios reveal environmental costs of home removal in wake of high-dollar development. Children testified in word and dance saluting natural elements of Southside park-life. While gentrified neighborhoods search for fresh-air play spaces so their children won’t suffer what Richard Louv names “nature deficit disorder,” Mission Road children have something money can’t buy, but greed for money may take from them: play-space outdoors in nature protected by community-at-large. This explains why parents fear that in displacement their children lose outdoor play opportunities. Riverside trailer-park’s community ambience presents rare experiences in which few words garner a thousand pictures. Someone laments, “I go down to the river, when feeling depressed… a lot lately.” Residents wishing to continue place-centered life-ways—exemplary for local sustainability our city touts—bode well in the face of planetary climate crisis, while the river’s proximity beckons developers with dollar-signs—not peace of mind—in mind.
Council-developer worries that residents “didn’t understand” revealed their own miscomprehension of eco-cultural insight. Council’s desire for “class integration” of neighborhoods across San Antonio neighborhoods reveals Councilmembers’ intentions to dis/replace low-to-middle income people for expensive, scenic-view real-estate sold to moneyed newcomers. Councilmembers worried about seller’s inclinations given vote’s postponement, but none asked: Will a developer’s money determine who benefits from living close to nature’s treasures?/ Should we look to who makes nature’s best neighbors?
Disrespecting peoples’ cultura means disrespecting nature’s commons and vice versa. Allies’ testimonies evoked displacement histories—Missions’ Indigenous communities, and peoples, globally—while Southside acequias provide exquisite examples of natural/cultural integration. When integrally bound together, respect garnered for one replicates itself in the other.
Many of the trailers are too old to move. During the City Council discussion, someone, in the bench in front of me, whispers, “They were built in the 60s.” In awe, I envision the care with which they were built, and are kept, to have weathered decades, to be held, still, with such love. No wonder developers covet this place. Its soul is not for sale, though the physical manifestation of the quiet trailer community by the river may disappear.