Author: Bekah McNeel

Goodnight in Old San Antonio

After six years, I gave up my booth at Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA). This has got to be a record for shortest tenure, seeing as how the woman from whom I inherited the booth had it for something over 30 years.

And actually, I’d been trying to quit for about three years, but kept getting talked out of it. But this year, as I slid into April with my hair on fire, I knew it was the magic year. The year where I finally learned to say: “No.”

Okay…maybe “learned to say no” is a bit of a stretch. But when I do finally scream “nooooo!!!!” in desperation, or cut someone off in traffic accidentally, or put my foot in my mouth I have learned to say: Eh…they’ll get over it.

So I quit NIOSA, a massive fundraiser for a cause that I affirm, the San Antonio Conservation Society. While I believe in their end goal, the event wasn’t something I could throw my whole self into anymore. For more on that, see my article in the Rivard Report.

I have stared out of that booth for 133 hours. Five and one half days. In all of that time, these were the highlights:

1) In the beginning, I was very…VERY into the whole thing. This photo was taken my first year in the booth, when I was 24 and kept company with primarily college students and single people. Back when stumbling home exhausted and sticky and smelling of beer was super cool. Back when I had a job that started at noon.

Liz and Bekah NIOSA

photo credit: Nell Glazener-Cooney
photo credit: Nell Glazener-Cooney

2) Nothing delighted me more than the men who would come by the booth in the drunking hour… not to see me. Dress a man up in a frilly blouse and a corona and you’ll have a line out the door.

Twinsies

3) I had many faithful helpers over the years. Becky Meyers, Justin Clement, the Behams, a whole host of Trinity Students who worked a shift every single year they were in school. But by far, the Volunteer of the Years(s) award goes to these two. I inherited them with the booth. They were the only thing that made it possible the last two years (when I had a job that didn’t observe “NIOSA week” as a holiday).

Rusty and Diana

4) I have a whole philosophy on Big Red, thanks to NIOSA’s contract with the RC Company and their refusal to sell Coca Cola or Pepsi Products. Here were some of the greatest quotes to come out of Cold Drinks #2.

THE “You didn’t do so well on multiple choice tests, did you?” CONVERSATION

Customer: You don’t have Coke?

Me: No. We only have RC products.

Customer: Pepsi?IMG_2491[1]

Me: No. We only have RC Products.

Customer: Dr. Pepper?

Me: No.

Customer: Diet Coke?

Me: No.

Customer: Okay, I’ll take a Big Red.

THE “What the hell is your 7 year old doing here on a school night?” CONVERSATION

Customer at 9:30pm: Do you have anything without caffiene?

Me: 7-Up

Customer’s Kid: I hate 7-UP!

Customer: Okay, he’ll take a Big Red.

THE “This is why America is obese” CONVERSATION

Customer: Do you have water?

Me: No.

Customer: Okay, I’ll take a Big Red.

Me: *blank stare*

I was beginning to believe that people only ordered Big Red as a last resort (which would mean that the four other drinks we served were beyond hope). But then there was this conversation, the year we decided to use the booth as a public health research venue.

Customer: I’ll take a Big Red.

Lewis: Here you go sir. And if you don’t mind my asking,  how often would you say you drink Big Red?

Customer: Most of the time.

Lewis: *blank stare*

5) I am pretty sure that NIOSA is the single most significant thing I have ever done (six times) to/for my immune system.

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6) Lewis coming along was a major change for my relationship with the booth. It was the beginning of a new time…a time when being irrationally tired had relational consequences.

I think the Conservation Society secretly knew this, and thus employed their prerogative as the arbiters of preservation. My maiden name (and the endless volunteer energy that went with it) is apparently one of the many monuments worth saving. 2013, when this picture was taken, was my 3rd NIOSA with the last name “McNeel.”

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7) Whether it was the very earnest cloggers, or the wildly inappropriate “flasher” character that roved the dancefloor, the booth was never lacking in spectacle to observe. Of course, the perennial favorite of drunk festival-goers across the Anglo-German world is the Chicken Dance.

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We kept a yearly tally of how many times the chicken dance was played.
8) The whole event has this sort of mom-n-pop feel to it. No one bothers with new-fangled conveniences like computers or health codes. So you can’t help but wonder how much money it could possibly make.

Millions, or more appropriately, tons.  One trip to the ticket weighing station underneath the booth at Sauerkraut Bend, and you see that these moms and pops are nobody’s fools.

About 5% of the nightly spoils. Each of those tickets is worth 50 cents.
About 3% of the nightly spoils. Each of those tickets is worth 50 cents.

9) Odd as it is, perhaps the thing I’ll miss the most is walk out, after it’s all over. There is no moodier light than the fading of a heat lamp. No more melancholy sound than the last of the revelry 100 feet ahead of you. No more atmospheric icon than the trash and debris of the party covered in confetti. It would have been easy for my last walk out of NIOSA to be a nostalgic, bittersweet moment…but then someone spilled beer on my shoe and nearly poked me in the eye with their sausage skewer…

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We Planted a Tree [Part I]

This is our sapling Taxodium mucronatum:

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Among the many cool CPS Energy programs, the tree giveaway is my favorite. It’s hard to get super jazzed about Energy Star Appliance rebates, and Enegy Saver Home Management, even though we appreciate them. But free trees? Hoo-RAY!

As the sole utilities provider for San Antonio, it’s good to see them give back. I heard someone make an argument for benevolent dictatorships once, and that sort of how I feel about CPS. In theory, I’m a fan of choice. In reality, I like CPS, and would probably choose them anyway. If being a monopoly allows them to give away trees, I’m not so terribly opposed.

I even found myself standing in Woodlawn Lake Park’s Earth Day celebration handing out free CPS trees to Westside residents. At the beginning of the day they could choose between such drought tolerant and attractive Texas natives as Eve’s Necklace, Mexican Buckeye, Redbuds, Possumhaw Holly, and more. As the day wore on, the choices narrowed considerably, until all that was left were Possumhaws and an entire grove of Montezuma Cypress.

Throughout the morning, two master naturalists carried an ongoing discussion as to whether or not Montezuma Cypress trees, which typically grow along rivers banks, were actually drought tolerant. If indeed they are not, then the middle of the bone-dry Westside in the middle of the 3rd worst drought in the city’s history might not bode well for the survival of the Montezumas.

(According to Wikipedia…they are both drought tolerant and usually found in riparian areas.)

At any rate, their audible debate did not bode well for marketing the Montezumas. So at the end of the day, I eyed the remaining saplings, looking like little Charlie Brown Christmas trees, and thought, “Well, kids, one of you has got to survive.”

I happen to have access to a creek on my husband’s family ranch. Gallagher Ranch is a fine specimen of the Edwards recharge zone, and this has just the sort of springs and soils in which cypress trees thrive. Whether or not Montezumas can actually flourish in any Westside back yard may be up for debate, but on the banks of San Geronimo Creek they seem to do quite well.

So on a Friday night Lewis and I headed out to the ranch with out friend Liz and her pack of dogs. We walked the creek bed until we found the perfect place.

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Lewis dug the hole.

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We set the tree in.

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I covered his roots. (I’m posing here…this is not the posture of someone actually shoveling.)

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Now we will hopefully watch him grow.

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If you’ve never planted a tree, I highly recommend it. I could wax on about the poetry of the experience, but I think that would only muck up it’s utility and grace. There are times where the poetry is in the doing, not the reflecting. Planting trees is one of those things.

I will only say this. Trees are so much simpler than people and politics. They take nutrients and they grow. They give back in predictable ways. They do what they do because of what they are, not how they feel or what they think. I know that it’s our magnificent minds and souls that separate us from the rest of the natural world…but trees have got something going for them. They live by the immortal creed: “It’s not how you look when you’re doin’ what you’re doin’. It’s what you’re doin’ when you’re doin’ what you look like you’re doin’.”

Something New and Good : Easter and Earth Day

“Give me something I can touch.”

It started in London at a St. Paul’s Ash Wednesday Service. There was something sobering and meaningful about feeling the ashes smeared across my forehead. That was actually the first time I paid attention to the tangibles of the faith.

After that I paid more attention to communion as well. The taste of wine and feel of bread. The cold pewter of the common cup against my lower lip. Faith often doesn’t feel real. We need something, even a small and symbolic something, to touch.

This is me, very happy, with St. Paul's behind me.
This is me, very happy, with St. Paul’s behind me.

Another famous English church experience was responsible for my awakening to a love of liturgical worship. Evensong at Cambridge Cathedral was a profound moment of worship not based on warm feelings or sentimentality. It was my first real experience of a sacred moment that had very little to do with my personal feelings, and much more to do with the sights, sounds, and air in the space.

Lent is when I feel my faith the most. Not “feel” emotionally, but “feel” in the Pat the Bunny sense. With my fingers. Christians aren’t supposed to need that. We’re supposed to be all about the “evidence of things not seen.”

But I need something I can touch. I can touch the earth.

Evolution is the ape in the room when faith and nature meet for lunch. When we force the choice between literal 6-day Creationism and Neo-Darwinian materialism, we must either close our eyes or deny our souls.

So many Christians opt to keep their eyes closed, or to fight data with dogma. We allowed the twentieth century to galvanize our faith into this cumbersome, rigid, behemoth must be authoritative on any matter, or it will shatter into a million pieces. So suddenly the Bible bears the burden of being a science text book.

The finch shares my popcorn.
The finch shares my popcorn.

Or we take the Don Draper (and now Peggy Olson) approach. “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” We can’t make nature jive with the Bible, so we just turn our attention elsewhere. We make the earth a lesser thing.

But I see things. I hear things. I feel things with my nerve endings, not just my emotions. I see things with my eyes, not just my reason.  I want a faith that fearlessly affirms discovery and understanding of the things we can touch, as much as the things we cannot.

So it was especially appropriate this year that I ended up in the Galápagos, “evolution’s workshop” for Easter…or Pasqua, as it became.

I had ignored Lent this year, coincidentally. For the first time since my British awakening, I did not give anything up. I did not seek out Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday. My intangible emotions were in full revolt against all things sacred.

Then, in a twist of divine brilliance, work sent me to the Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island for the holiday. My hotel was down the street from the Darwin Research Station. Darwin’s finches shared my Easter lunch.

And I was forced to answer the question: can I simultaneously believe in what is happening here and what happened 2,000 years ago? Here they are observing evolution in the beaks of finches. Can this possibly jive with a risen Jesus and a spiritual world?

Watching the magnificent frigate bird with his red ballon gular sac, and the Galápagos Prickly Pear Cactus Tree with its uncanny structure, I considered the Easter story.Why was it so important that Jesus rose physically? Why not just send the Holy Spirit from the cross and skip straight to Pentacost?

Because our physical selves matter. The physical world where we see flowers, hear birdsongs, and taste ceviche. Someone else understood that too.

“Give me something I can touch.”

Thomas. Had Jesus not been there with physical wounds, Thomas would have been lost. Thomas’s needs are more familiar to me now than ever. In a sense he was saying, “I’m going to need something more than their words. I’m going to need something more real than the physical realities of death. Give me something I can’t deny.”IMPORT March 2013 073

Jesus has not been as obliging with me as he was with Thomas. Instead he gave me Galápagos Easter. If every time I touch the earth I do not have to go to war in my soul, then I can live without touching Christ’s wounds.

The moment I was set free to the natural world I can’t deny and the faith I cannot bear to lose, it was as though the earth burst forth in song. Sun glinting through the prickly pear tree looked like the Cambridge Cathedral. Leaves and dirt and water felt like the ashes on my forehead.

I, for one, want a faith that goes to the Galápagos without fear of being dismantled. Rather than a porcelain mastodon that must stay safe and polished, I want a dynamic sapling that stretches and grows toward the light as it soaks up nourishment from the earth.  I want to celebrate Easter and Earth Day – when we celebrate the things we can touch.

Something New and Good : Transition

Someone wise recently told me that I was in a time of transition. The end of one calling, a complete reconsideration of my gifts/strengths/interests/opportunities.

Another wise person – to whom I happen to be married – recently told me that I am over-committed. He told me this as I stumbled to bed at midnight, still checking email on my phone. Even though I did roll my eyes and explain that I’ve been that way since he married me– I’ve been that way since high school, in fact– he has a point.  I’ve got fingers in a lot of pies, eyes on the horizon, ear to the ground, toes in the water, nose to the grind stone…and still unsure of where me heart is. I see this as a symptom of being in transition.

My Professional Identity: Dora the Explorer
My Professional Identity: Dora the Explorer

Do we all imagine that our late 20’s will be the time when our roots are spreading and we’re finally gaining momentum and focus in the dream life we have achieved? Or was that just me?

Late twenties transition is different than that initial real-world jolt. When we were 23 and 24 we were all freaking out together. We were all poor and disillusioned (because it was 2008, so really everyone was poor and disillusioned  but the 23-24-year-olds could still pull off the look). No one really had much.

Now we’ve got stuff, to varying degrees. I have friends who are nearing their 5 year anniversaries at the same firm, 7 years of marriage to the same person, and they have kids who are older than my own marriage and job. But then again…I do have a husband and a good job. And a mortgage. So, it’s not really like being 23.

It’s like being 29 and in transition.

In some ways it’s inevitable, because a woman’s late 20’s are prime time for babies, promotions, distance running PRs, and establishing oneself as a political entity. Those all get in the way of each other as is. Add in “re-starting half your life” and, well…yeah.

I’m not naive enough to think I can have it all or do it all. But while the music swells and the temperature rises…I’m not ready to plant my flag on the shore and say, “This is who I am…now…for real this time…never mind last time.”

Whether we call it transition or chronic over-commitment, here’s the lay of the land in this strange new world…

Evidence of Life Transition in One’s Late 20s

(Millennial Generation Edition)

1) Another woman cleans your house…and her car is nicer than yours.

2) Public parks, check-out lines, and bars are places to answer emails. But NOT movie theaters. Some things are still sacred.

3) You have a growing closet of Patagonia clothing because it’s versatile enough to merit the price tag. By versatile I mean that it looks ready-to-go without looking already-been.

4) You have five email addresses and use them all frequently. Sometimes you use the wrong ones, and people begin referring to you by your college nickname in professional settings.

I care about these two beasts.
I care about these two beasts.

5) Your less attentive family members have no idea what you do for fun vs. what you do for work. You’re like Chandler Bing on Friends, crossed with Sydney Bristow from Alias (and because you are in your late 20’s you get those references).

6)  You look at maps and if you can’t bike or walk there, you are very resistant to the idea of going at all. Why? Because it’s probably the only exercise you are going to get…and your car has no air-conditioning, bumper, or driver-side door handle. It looks hip to pull up sweaty on a bike. Not so much when your brakes alert everyone to your arrival.

7) Your phone accompanies you to dinner. But you still hear your mother’s sarcastic chiding, “Wow, you must be important. Expecting a call from the President?”

And you respond…”Actually, Mom-in-my-head, the fact that my phone is at the table tells you precisely how unimportant I am. Important people don’t have to take calls at dinner.”

A friend once made a similar observation about how many keys are on one’s keyring. As you climb the ladder of life you gain keys as you gain access to more and more responsibilities. Then one day, you trade all those in for one master key. And at the top level you simply expect doors to be unlocked in anticipation of your arrival.

8) You have dogs. Plural. And a yard. And if it weren’t for your spouse/partner/roommate they would all be dead. I, for one, currently have four more living things to care for than I ever anticipated. The one that does not whine gets neglected. Sorry, yard.

Also, I said dogs intentionally. Cats do not count. Anyone can care for a cat. College students can care for cats, and they can barely care for themselves. Cats will survive the apocalypse, and they can survive owners under 25.

9) You start spending more money on skin care, which you justify by spending less money on iTunes.

10) Your husband asks, “Do we have anything going this weekend?” And you say “No! It should be totally relaxing.” Then he’s totally baffled when the alarm goes off at 6 am on Saturday, and your parting words are, “I’ll be back in time to change for the symphony. Don’t forget to drop by community garden workday and the dry cleaners.”

In all seriousness, transition is a weird time. The wise man who identified my own transition also gave me the advice that I’m trying really hard to follow: don’t cut it short.

When we were young we frequented the swimming holes of the Edward’s Plateau. Limestone caves were everywhere, and many times the entrances were underwater. You had to hold your breath and swim into the darkness trusting that the person who told you about it was right in that it was only a 15 second swim before you reached an air pocket or cavern on the other side.

Pop up too early and you bashed your head and sucked in water when you gasped. But if you could hold your breath until you sensed that you were through the mouth of the cave, the caverns on the other side were magical.

Fiesta Time!

Fiesta is here! Never mind that downtown is about to become an absurd gridlock of bleachers, confetti, and carnival food. I love this time of year!

I love color. I love revelry. I love living downtown.

Viva Fiesta!

Houston and Alamo
Houston and Alamo

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The Fiesta Store on Main
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On Broadway, heading into downtown
 

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Little House on the Eastside gets dressed for the party!
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Even Emma likes Fiesta

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Wiley oversees "Natural Fiesta" in the back yard.
Wiley oversees “Natural Fiesta” in the back yard.

Something New and Good : Requiem

 My sister and her husband were living in my grandparents’ old house. The alarm, which had not been turned on for literally over a decade suddenly went off for no apparent reason. It was loud (which upsets my sister), and it was relentless. My brother in law tried turning it off, dismantling it, and disconnecting it, and still it screamed.

Suddenly he turned, and there was my sister, who had been outside calling relatives to try to figure out the alarm code. She was holding heavy duty scissors and wearing her game-over face. With no pause for discussion, she took a handful of the freshly exposed wires and cut straight through them. The alarm stopped. She handed the severed hardware to her husband and walked away. The alarm is turned off in a permanent way.

That’s what happened to me and God-talk.

Once upon a time, my faith was easy for me to talk about. I loved going to conferences on topics like “the church” or “the Church” or “this thing called church.” I could worship pretty freely in most settings (I say most because of my weird squeamishness in charismatic services). Nothing got me jazzed like a good theological debate or the inside jokes that only Bible students can access. I wanted to live my life in the semantic fray of those who would decide what is most important to Jesus, and what’s really wrong with the world.

And then came a concentrated series of misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and disappointments that made corporate worship and spiritual intimacy almost unbearable. The language of these misunderstandings was the language of my faith. The words that hurt my feelings cut straight to my identity, because they were words of my faith. The disappointments knocked the wind out of me all the more because they were delivered in the same language I had used to pin my hopes to the church.

The words that had been my life now sound like death to me.

The music, the memes, the tropes, and the catchphrases of Christianity feel like itchy wool on the blistering summer of my heart. So it has been with a fair amount of desperation that I’ve been hunting for sounds that don’t make me cringe or want to hide. Right now, that means going to the symphony.

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Last weekend the San Antonio Symphony, San Antonio Mastersingers, Trinity University choir, and UTSA choir performed Verdi’s Requiem, and they did so with a grandeur I had never seen from this group of hard-working and humble musicians. Trumpets in the mezzanine. Bass drums. Super-titles. My lungs were vibrating behind my ribs from the sound waves, and my soul shook somewhere deep my guts.

In the wake of the explosions at the Boston Marathon, the shootings at Sandy Hook, and Kermit Gosnell’s house of horrors, and the millions of lesser injustices we witness every day, we should all appreciate the need for songs of grief and cries for mercy. The concert was universal and personal in a way we often forget that we need. Not to compare my grief with the victims of tragedy, but simply to point out that death has many faces, and no paltry words or chords can match it.

Verdi was not a man of public faith, but he used the requiem format – a sung funerary mass from the Catholic church – to honor deceased friends and a common political ambition of a unified Italy. He was skeptical of the church, and yet the power of a private devotion wasn’t lost on him. His distrust did not run so deep that he would abandon the vocabulary of faith. Instead he made it beautiful by composing one of the finest pieces of music to carry it past the ears and into the soul, past the cynical guards who kept the words themselves at bay.

I can relate.

As I listened, four soloists and three choirs delivered the haunting words of the Kyrie, Agnus Dei, Sanctus, Lacrimosa, Lux Aeterna, and the rest until finally the Libera Me, which literally means Deliver Me. The words were displayed on supertitles, but I didn’t need them to know that this terrifying and haunting beauty was at once the death mass for who I thought I would be, and a reminder of why I’m still tangled up in this tattered and sweat soaked faith of mine.

I’m not who I was. Not headed in the same direction, not in the company I used to keep. And the gulf grows greater every day.

It’s difficult to worship. It’s difficult to talk about my faith, or to hear others talk about the faith we share. But it is not difficult to hear beautiful music. Music that makes me want to join when it sings, “May eternal light shine upon them, O Lord, with Thy saints forever, for Thou art good.”

Explorer’s challenge: Five climate zones in 15 days

I pride myself on being a good packer. Or at least in having chosen an excellent convertible carry-on/backpack suitcase once upon a time. Two weeks in Africa, no sweat. Forty days in Europe, easy. This summer it was my moble mueble carrying not only clothing but plastic plates, utensils, and basic groceries as I lived three days per week at a hotel in Katy.

This last trip, however, may have stretched my trusty sidekick to its limit. He’s still going strong, zipper works, wheels roll, handle retracts. But my creative packing and his elasticity we going full throttle as I packed for my trip through Peru and Ecuador. First off, it was a business trip, so I needed to have the ability to look nice, should the situation present itself. I would also be hiking, snorkeling, city-touring, and boating. But the most complicated element:  I would be traveling through six climate zones, which I will here below grossly oversimplify.

#1 Coastal Desert

“It never rains in Lima,” said the man driving us from the airport to our hotel in Miraflores. We would hear this exact sentence 3 more times before we left Peru.

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Nonetheless, there were puddles on our terrace in the morning.

Lima’s coastal desert climate is a product of the Humboldt Current, which keeps it temperate (60s in their winter, 70s in their summer) and foggy. In my opinion, humidity makes all weather feel more extreme, so add 10 degrees to the heat index for summer and add “cold sweat” to the winter forecast. It’s a humid place, even if it rarely comes to fruition.  Most of their <2 inches of “rain” every year, like our puddles, are actually condensation from the dense fog called the garúa.  

The closest thing Lima has to crazy weather are El Niño events, when the Humboldt Current warms up and they have a heat wave. But that wasnt’ happening when we were there, so I have to say, Lima was easy to outfit.

#2 Sierra- Andean Valley

The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu are often lumped together in terms of climate. In fact good luck finding an online resource to say otherwise. However, thanks to the windows of the Vistadome, we watched as bromelia replaces agave, opportunistically sprouting on trees and rocks, while the agave ran out of personal space. The polite and orderly mountain flora is overtaken by aggressive and lusty Amazonia.

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The true Andean Valley is ideal for agriculture. Temperate, predictably dry, then torrentially wet November-February.

Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu are exploding with life. It’s everywhere, and while rain and dryness are equally predictable, there’s an added something in the air that covers the Citadel with clouds and the rooftops with jungles of lichens.

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#3 Sierra – Andean Highlands

Again, the highlands are often lumped in with the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, but anyone who has had to budget their long-sleeves and short sleeves know that this is simply not true.

Cusco is cold. Technically we were there in the summer time and I’m wearing a jacket in most of the pictures. Also, this has nothing to do with the climate, but the air is also terribly thin, so everything is out of whack when it comes to dealing with the climate. You’re cold, you’re panting, you’re dizzy, you’re thirsty.

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I have no idea what grows and lives naturally in Cusco, because we never left the heart of the city, or strayed from it’s concrete arteries.

#3 Selva – Amazon

This might have been our most dramatic transition. From chilly Cusco to Puerto Maldonado where the highs and humidity were in the 90s. We never stopped sweating. Fortunately, our mood was somehow improved by this, and Lewis concluded, “We’re just happier when we’re sweating.”

Never thought I’d hear that said about me.

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The Amazon is fascinating. The soil is nutrient poor, and so things grow quickly with shallow roots dog piling on top of one another. In some cases, like the banana tree, they are productive for about three years, and then they are gone. So few develop into hardwoods that our naturalist guide made a point to call attention to almost every single one we passed.

In the explosion of life, competition is fierce, and so everything is brighter and bolder than it would be in a world where there were enough of things to go around. Flowers need to attract pollinators, and you don’t waste your energy getting all magnificent if there’s no need to impress anyone. It also means that bacteria, mold, infestation and decay happen more rapidly. Everywhere you look, there is life…and it’s all fighting for the same small space.

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Four (some say five) layers, each it’s own system of relationships and bioeconomics, make up the rainforest. The herbacious floor, with life piled upon life and the detritovores coat the ground and speed decay. Next layer up are the shrubs and short trees of the shady understory, which provide shelter to much of the forest fauna. Next up is the canopy, which can only be explored by binocular or ingenuity, as it is both dense and impossibly high. The emergent layer are those survivors who hover even above the canopy, like the Jetsons.

Those last two layers, the canopy and the emergent layer are made of primary forest. Old growth. These are the treasures of the forest that have survived mold, parasite, and competition for light and nutrients. These are the mighty men of the rainforest. And they can’t be quickly replaced.

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#4 Galapagos

I had soaked through most of our warm weather clothes by the time we got to the Galapagos. Fortunately March, while it is the hottest month, is the best time for snorkeling, so I could wear my bathing suit most of the day.

But there were the morning hikes, during which I would wear slightly smelling post-Amazon explorer attire and give it 20 minutes until they were drenched anew under the unforgiving sun of 10am on Española Island.

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The Galapagos, like the coast, is dependent on the currents for it’s seasons. Humbolt, June through November, brings dry air and wetsuit weather to the waters, particularly on the western islands. Panama Current brings wet summer, peaking in March, when hiking is best reserved for the hours of 5am-9am. Which is what we did.

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Every few years El Niño comes and starves the islands, which are devoid of fresh water resources. Without rain, the volcanic rocks just bake, along with everything on them.

Being volcanic, the rocks hold almost no nutrients, and host desert plants like sesuvium and prickly pear (which impressed even this Texas girl by growing into trees…). Their iconic tree, the ever-adaptable endemic scalesia grows across the climate zones, including the highlands of Santa Cruz where it shares space with a wider variety of short but dense vegetation.

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Odd as it may seem, this remote and exotic world felt the most familiar, as far as my skin was concerned. August in San Antonio has a tropical desert element to it.

#5 Páramo

My favorite climate region was the one we visited last. Nestled between the continuous treeline and the snowline along the equatorial Andes lies the páramo. Cold and humid, pretty much year round and simultaneously home to delicate flowers, hummingbirds, and evergreens.

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The mid 60’s temperatures were welcome, as we were all out of warm weather clothes that didn’t smell like a gym floor.

We hiked all day, visited the Andean condor rehab center, and sat down to dinner fresh faced and still smelling nicely. The crops were not particularly diverse in the páramo, but the dairy production was devine, and the cows looked happy with their lot in life. They should be, at least, as the scenery in the Zuleta region is nothing short of breathtaking.

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If I had it to do over again, I’d spend two weeks in each location. No question. But as a survey, I left me utterly convinced that South America holds more natural wonders than anywhere else I’ve seen, and I hope that they know it, protect it, and stand by it.

Nature’s Hallelujah: The Galápagos

As our panga neared a formation called “The Cathedral” at Cerro Brujo on San Cristobal island, I had mixed emotions. I was in awe, watching Kicker Rock appear and disappear as the waves batted us to and fro. I was also perplexed. How could anyone have ever sailed these waters and failed to realize the beauty of places like Cerro Brujo?

Blow hole on Española
Blow hole on Española
Sunrise from a balcony on Santa Cruz
Sunrise from a balcony on Santa Cruz

During the heady moment of imperial expansion, European powers planted their flags in just about every type of soil in the world. They mined, they conquered, they spread their germs and culture with liberality across most terrains. But upon reaching the Galápagos, yet unnamed, they found nothing to mine. No one to conquer. Nothing to take home. And so they called the islands cursed.

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Baby sea lion at Punta Pitt, San Cristobal
Baby sea lion at Punta Pitt, San Cristobal

The “Islas Encantadas” of the South American pacific would suffer through the middle ages under the worldview that nature’s singular purpose was to illustrate Biblical principals to mankind. Bacon and his lot didn’t help either, because usefulness as the measure of value did not change the status of the volcanic islands, void of fresh water and edible vegetation.

Punta Pitt, San Cristobal - tuff cone formations
Punta Pitt, San Cristobal – tuff cone formations
Blue-footed boobie on Española
Blue-footed boobie on Española

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Like most places deemed uninhabitable or useless by decent society, the Enchanted Islands began to collect indecent society. Pirates, felons, and women on the run found ways to inhabit the rocks, only to be murdered, run off, or defeated by the odds against survival in one place that would not yield to man’s narrow view of dominion. No one felt their efforts more strongly than the tortoises, who were the only edible game, and were thus hunted to within millimeters of extinction.

Tortoise on Santa Cruz
Tortoise on Santa Cruz

It was not until Charles Darwin stepped onto their shores in 1835 that anyone found something worth taking home: a bag of dead finches.

Darwin’s gaze dignified the islands, and anyone who now gazes at Kicker Rock glowing in the sunset owes to him one of the awesome experiences of her lifetime. And the islands that were of no value to those seeking gold, God, or glory, have become a goldmine to those witnessing the glory of God. Forget the culture wars for one moment and give thanks that we have been freed to love nature for what it is.

Kicker Rock at Sunset
Kicker Rock at Sunset
Cactus finch on Santa Cruz
Cactus finch on Santa Cruz

The Galápagos, in our time, are still not a quiescent subject to the whims and wishes of man. The National Park takes precedence over tourism, agriculture, and commerce. Guides are unapologetic in dishing out the answer we think we can buy our way out of, “No.”

A guide, protecting the sesuvium, where red-footed boobies nest
A guide, protecting the sesuvium, where red-footed boobies nest
Marine Iguana on Santa Cruz
Marine Iguana on Santa Cruz

Visions of Caribbean luxury are dashed on the tuff cones and chased far away by biting horse flies. Predictability is low where animals are not bated and tamed to earn big tips from schedule-bound tours. The heat is unforgiving in its season, and shade is found in as many places as is fresh water…none.

Marine iguanas of Española
Marine iguanas of Española

Yet, Darwin’s children flock like sea lions to those shores, seeking to understand the processes of nature, and its continual course of becoming. The islands attract those who are intrigued by an isolated ecosystem where predators are scarce and resources scarcer. Those who see a pond covered in sesuvium or a collapse crater and gasp in wonder. Those who marvel at the beaks of finches. There are some hallelujah’s only uttered in the language of science.

Los Gemelos collapse crater on Santa Cruz.
Los Gemelos collapse crater on Santa Cruz.
Sesuvium covering a pond on Santa Cruz island where tortoises seek shade.
Sesuvium covering a pond on Santa Cruz island where tortoises seek shade.

And so as much as indignance swells inside me to the rhythm of the waves beneath me, I am also glad. I am relieved that in a moment when we ruined so much, we did not ruin everything. I am relieved that those things which we did not deem worthy of our exploitation have survived to become our treasures. I rejoice for those who did not impose a tax upon every inch of Creation. Those who bound their fortunes to the flourishing of nature.

Española
Española
Baby sea lion on Española
Baby sea lion on Española

The conquistador spirit is alive and well, I know. Standing on the dock while Lonesome George’s remains were escorted by documentary crew off to the Smithsonian, I saw the sad face of the local girl who had grown up in the glow of his renown. She will never be able to buy the plane ticket to go to the Smithsonian to pay homage. She has lost him. Naturalist eyes are not immune to the allure of the spoils.

Lonesome George on his way to the Smithsonian.
Lonesome George on his way to the Smithsonian.

We cannot simply rest in our rapture over the rarity of this place. We must keep advocating, must keep reforming, must keep making those anti-Babel decisions that keep us off of the throne of Heaven. The Galápagos are a place where we can go to remind ourselves that we are not the measure of all things.

Red-footed booby in flight
Red-footed booby in flight

NOTE: for more light hearted detail of our trip, see the Alamo Area Master Naturalist Newsletter article.

The Curious Urbanite Learns about School Choice

There’s a new pro-choice movement in town. Instead of clinics and doctors, this time it’s about schools and teachers. Particularly in areas with above average high school drop our rates, like inner-city San Antonio.  The curious urbanite will be curious about what this means for any children she needs to be educating in the future…

School choice is the term used to refer to a movement that includes everything from vouchers to homeschooling, as well as public charter schools. It is based on the assertion that parents who find themselves in failing schools should be given options to look elsewhere for their children’s education.

On March 26, Texas Senate Bill 2 is scheduled for public hearing. This bill will, among other things increases support for charter schools, including those not incorporated by the school districts in which they reside, like IDEA and KIPP. It will also establish a Charter Schools Authorizing Authority.

In advance of that hearing, Texans Deserve Great Schools held a press conference on March 22 at IDEA Carver, formerly The Carver Academy, on Hackberry Street.

Speaking at the press conference was Sen. Dan Patrick, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, author of the TX SB 2, and advocate of school choice.

Perhaps the strongest argument for school choice, one made by Patrick, is that it has always existed for those wealthy enough for private school and mobile enough to shift school districts. However, for those bound by income and geography to struggling school districts, there is little that they can do, however much they might want more opportunity for their child.

Texas Senator Dan Patrick at a press conference on Policy Recommendations for Texas Education System Transformation
Texas Senator Dan Patrick at a press conference on Policy Recommendations for Texas Education System Transformation

“Just because you are poor, in the valley, or in the inner city doesn’t mean you don’t care about your child…” Patrick said. He also pointed out that it was misguided to think that one educational approach would work for 5 million students saying, “Anyone who has more than one child knows that in the same family with the same upbringing, children learn differently.”

A key element of school choice, the one addressed by TX SB 2 is the availablility of charter schools.

“There are some that resist innovation, transparency, and rigor,” he said. Which is what Texans Deserves Great Schools proposes to bring to table.

He argued that with 5 million students in public schools, the idea that charter schools represent a serious threat to public school enrollment (and funding) is simply unrealistic. Right now, with approximately 150,000 students enrolled, charter schools account for the smallest portion of the pupil share in the state.  With and 80,000/year growth rate, it is likely that 95% of all Texas students will continue to be enrolled in public schools.

Victoria Branton Rico at a press conference on Policy Recommendations for Texas Education System Transformation
Victoria Branton Rico at a press conference on Policy Recommendations for Texas Education System Transformation

Patrick, along with Victoria Branton Rico, Chairwoman of the George W. Brackenridge Foundation, made the case that adding options for families and students would not hurt existing public schools. On the contrary, they cited research showing how competition strengthens public school performance, which only bodes well for public school funding.

“Being pro-charter is not being anti-public schools,” Patrick said.

Branton Rico reiterated some of the challenges facing public schools, and celebrated advances in research that have allowed policy to move forward addressing the issues.

“A few years ago this was a policy dead end,” she said, going on to reference studies by MIT, Harvard, and others about the effectiveness of the high performing charter schools. The most compelling statistic being that students in charter schools receive an average of four more years of education than students in traditional public schools – which basically means that their drop-out rate is drastically lower. Dropping out of high school has a high statistical correlation to going to prison, Branton Rico pointed out.

Branton Rico highlighted Texans Deserve Great School’s four core principles to transform Texas schools (more in-depth explanations of the policies can be found here):

1) Implement proven education technologies and teaching innovation – these include blended learning, online classes, vocational training classes, allowing students to test for credit in classes without “seat time,” and innovation waivers for schools looking to pilot new program.

2) Make high-performing school options available to every Texas family – most notably by removing the cap on charter schools, allowing families to choose any public school they wish (while giving priority to the school’s local residents when a school reaches capacity), equitable funding and facility access for charter and traditional public schools, and increasing principals’ control over vital areas that affect campus effectiveness and efficiency.

3) Invest in the best teachers and teaching policies to improve student learning – which would increase rigor and flexibility on everything from teacher training, to pay-scales, to giving teachers full use of the grading scale (even zero) to evaluate student work.

4) Integrate an emergency, expedited fix for any failing Texas public school – the main point of which is to allow for more accessible ratings (such as an A-F scale) and swifter intervention for failing schools.

The final speaker at the press conference was Rolando Posada, executive director of San Antonio IDEA public schools.

Rolando Posada at a press conference on Policy Recommendations for Texas Education System Transformation
Rolando Posada at a press conference on Policy Recommendations for Texas Education System Transformation

He heralded a 100% increase in IDEA schools in Texas over the next five years, from 28 to 56, which proposes to increase college graduates in Central Texas and the Rio Grande Valley by 50%.

“Solving the education problem means that we are creating people who can solve the other problems our country faces,” Posada said.

IDEA embraces blended learning and the other innovative techniques promoted by Texans Deserve Great Schools. He referred to his students as young readers and mathematicians, emphasizing their potential to achieve.

“We focus on character, and acheivement remarkable and naturally follows,” Posada said.

He went on to praise the efforts of Sen. Patrick for moving past lip service and into action saying, “The time has come to replace cliche’s with actual transformation.”

For those seeking transformation on both sides of the school choice movement, TX SB 2 will be important to watch.

The Curious Urbanite Learns about Water

From first through seventh grade I attended New Braunfels public schools. Having nothing to compare with this experience, it was not until adulthood that I realized what is so special about a New Braunfels public school education.

To this day, I can tell you that the Comal River is 72.6 degrees year round. It is fed by a spring from the Edwards Aquifer and home to the blind salamander and fountain darter, both of which are endangered. New Braunfels was home to Ferdinand Lindheimer, the “Father of Texas Botany,” as well as a progressive German settlement that made a big impression on Frederick Law Olmsted as he journeyed across Texas.

I don’t know if the testing regimen still allows for it, but the local history and ecology taught to New Braunfels ISD 3rd graders at Herman Seele Elementary in 1992-93 was the stuff of naturalist fantasies. I learned to see myself as a part of the unique civic and natural history of a spring fed town.

Understanding where water comes from is essential for urban living. We run a high risk of seeing it as an inexhaustible resource, generated by nozzles, knobs, and hoses. In the area served by the Edwards Aquifer (and the Trinity Aquifer beneath it), the conversation is peppered with words like “recharge zone” and a random number somewhere in the 600’s that tells us when we can and cannot water our lawns.

Local news and conversation is flooded with juicy information about latest water politics and crises, so the dynamic nature of water issues does not require specialized knowledge once you are able to interpret the language. A basic understanding of historic geopolitics is helpful as well.

Sounds like a quest for the Curious Urbanite.

San Antonio River
San Antonio River

The Curious Urbanite’s Water Issue Primer

“J-17”– Every night on the news, the weather man announces the aquifer level.  The record high was in 1992 at 703 and the record low was 612 in 1956. This number is the primary determinate for water usage restrictions in the city of San Antonio. So how do they get that number?

They get it from one artesian well near the cemetery at Fort Sam Houston, J-17. Like all artesian wells, the water in J-17 is being pushed up toward the surface by underground water flowing from higher altitudes is the north and west (the contributing and recharge zones..more on that later). However, unlike Comal Springs or San Marcos Springs, J-17 does not bubble up above the surface. The water simply rises and falls within the natural well, depending on how much water pressure is acting upon it from the aquifer.

If the water in J-17 reaches 640 feet above sea level…the weatherman says that aquifer level is 640. Which, I believe, is Stage 4 water restriction and you can kiss your grass goodbye. If it reaches 680 we all run around naked in our sprinklers…which is stupid because if we conserved water at 680 the way we do at 640 then we would never see 640.

Zones– Three zones comprise the Edwards Aquifer. Contributing zone, recharge zone, and artesian zone. The contributing zone is not as helpful as it sounds. It is the high, dense land where rainfall runs into streams and rivers which travel downhill. It’s where water collects, but it doesn’t enter the aquifer until it reaches the recharge zone. The recharge zone is area that is shaken and cracked so that water can fall down into the aquifer from the surface, and the abundant Trinity Aquifer can share water with the Edwards.

The thing about the recharge zone is that it is small and delicate. And in high demand for development. But every piece of ground covered with a house or a shopping center is no longer cracked and porous. And every contaminate that runs off of a recharge zone parking lot into the cracks and pores around it goes straight into the same aquifer we drink out of.

The third zone is the artesian zone. That’s us, the big city with our 100 gallons per person, per day. It’s also, though, the natural springs in New Braunfels and San Marcos. When I was a kid, we used to go to Comal Springs and drink from the ground, claiming that it was the purest water in the world because it was coming straight from the aquifer.

Fun fact: it can take up to 200 years for water to make it from the furthest point in the contributing zone to the Comal Springs. Had we known that we might have been more squeamish about drinking “the world’s purest water.”

Water Quality– right now, the Edwards Aquifer Authority (established in 1993 to keep the Federal Government from seizing control of the Aquifer under the Endangered Species Act) has the unenviable job of regulating how much water can be pumped from our limestone sponge. While this is a vast improvement over the wild west style “rule of capture” law, which basically said that ground water belonged to whomever could access it (as opposed to surface water, which was tightly regulated to keep people from using rivers as their personal water tanks), it does little to address the compromising elements to our water quality.

EAA is take valiant stabs at water quality management, but they face geopolitical hurdles on both the quality and the quantity fronts.Because the aquifer works as a filtering agent, the quality issues are not quite as dire as the quantity issue, which seems to be in perpetual DEFCON 3. So until we start dying of cholera, we’re going to have to live with some asphalt sealant in the runoff.

Agriculture in the west and development in the north are greatly inconvenienced by restrictions that will keep springs flowing and drinking water clean in San Antonio, New Braunfels, and San Marcos. More to the point: Texans have a hard time being told that what is on their land is not strictly their own.

Forgive me if I rant a little…

If the 3rd graders at Seele Elementary were told that their precious Comal Springs would soon be toxic because the recharge zone was all paved over,  they would be so confused. They would wonder if the culprits had known what they were doing. Did they know that they were hurting people on the other end of the water table? They would wonder why no one stopped them. If the water bubbling out of Comal Springs belongs to all of us, how can it belong to one person when it’s under the ground in Bandera?

For the large populations dependent on the Edwards Aquifer for water (and thus, life), a new understanding of geography and land ownership is necessary. It was not a mayor or a governor who decided that water would flow from Bandera and the Hill Country to San Antonio and the north eastern springs. The flow under the surface are beyond taxes and districts. What a farmer does in Uvalde matters to a family in San Antonio, not because the government wants to tell you what to do with your land, but because this is how the water works. It flows from one to another without stopping to ask “who do I belong to?”

For this Curious Urbanite, knowing how the aquifer works made the litigious grabbiness of many of my fellow Texans seem absurd and immoral. The more I learned about the resources we share, the more I stood in amazement at those who consider it their right to screw the rest of us. And, for one more moment on my little urban soap box, I say that it is ironic that we smile upon mission agencies trying to bring clean water to Sub Saharan Africa while we are so busy dying on the hill of “keeping the government out of my business” that we are compromising that very resource for our own neighbors.