Local Sacred Spaces: Purgatory Creek’s Ancient Oaks

Another thing I wanted to do with this blog is document my search for sacred spaces in my local area. In Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe by H. R. Ellis Davidson (an excellent resource!), it talks about how my ancestors viewed sacred spaces. They had man-made sacred spaces, but also recognized the existence of natural sacred spaces that already existed in the landscape. When Iceland was settled, one of the first things the colonists set out to do was find these sacred hills, groves, etc. in their new land.

I had already been noticing sacred spaces around San Marcos ever since I moved here over six years ago (my goodness, has it really been that long?), but reading that book encouraged me to document my finds on this blog. I hope that it might be helpful for other pagans to see how I find these spots, so they might try it out where they live.

The first one I’d like to feature is one near and dear to my heart, because this is where my husband proposed to me. It’s an ancient live oak tree in Purgatory Creek Natural Area. We found it when we were trying out geocaching. We lived in a rented house only a couple of blocks away and visited that park often. Someone had stowed a geocache inside its hollowed-out interior. This park has other old oak trees, but this is the biggest we’ve found.

I already know my ancestors venerated trees. Oaks are sacred to Thor, so it’s probably most appropriate that I post this on a Thursday. My husband estimates this tree to be about 400 years old, give or take a century, based on its girth. It would be impossible to find out for sure, because the way to do that scientifically (and not hurt the tree) would be to take a core and count the rings, and like many very old live oak trees, this one has become hollow inside. In fact, the space inside is big enough for a couple of people to sit in comfortably! Clearly this is a venerable tree, an avatar of Yggdrasil! Sometimes I call it the Engagement Tree, since my husband proposed to me under it, but maybe a better name for him would be Grandfather Oak. Oaks don’t have separate male and female individuals, but oaks are usually considered a masculine tree in European mythology, so Grandfather it is.

The oak seen from the main trail.

The oak seen from the main trail.

Like many large oak trees in open areas, it has acted as a nurse tree to smaller trees that have sprouted under its branches. Birds perch in the branches and drop seeds underneath, which grow sheltered from the hot Texas sun in its shade. This tree mostly has Texas Persimmon under it, a beautiful small native tree with peeling bark, smooth white trunks, and small black persimmons loved by wildlife. It also has an Anacua or two, another native tree with tasty berries eaten by birds.

Curtains of Spanish moss drape gracefully from the branches. Spanish moss isn’t a true moss, but actually and epiphyte related to bromeliads. Its close relative, ball moss, seems to be much more common around here, but it doesn’t form the long curtains. (It does, however, make excellent kindling for campfires!)

Going down the trail to the tree, you pass through curtains of Spanish Moss. The dark leaves are persimmon, while the lighter leaves are the oak's.

Going down the trail to the tree, you pass through curtains of Spanish Moss. The dark leaves are persimmon, while the lighter leaves are the oak’s.

The Spanish moss and smaller understory trees create a kind of wall around the central oak tree. People have worn a path branching off the main trail to the tree, and walking down the path, you have to push aside the Spanish moss like you’re moving through curtains through a portal to another world. And then you come to the open area underneath the canopy, and there is the trunk of the mighty oak, twisted and burled, beckoning you to climb its thick branches or shelter in its hollow trunk.

Oak leaves in the foreground, with the tree's trunk far behind.

Oak leaves in the foreground, with the tree’s trunk far behind.

What things has this tree seen in its long life? A lot has happened in 400 years. Indians probably sat under its shade, then Spaniards, or maybe German settlers. Countless acorns have fed generations of wildlife, and generations of birds and squirrels have built nests in its branches. I wonder if my husband was the first person to propose to his beloved under it, or if the tree has seen that before too. Every time I visit the tree I give it an offering of water from my water bottle.

The hollow trunk of the tree close up.

The hollow trunk of the tree close up.

We also try to remember to bring a trash bag. We’re not the only ones who know about this tree, after all, and some people are less respectful than us. Sometimes we find beer cans, plastic water bottles, cigarette butts, even discarded clothing and condom wrappers. Signs that others are enjoying the tree, yes, but I do wish more people would remember to Leave No Trace. We read the logbook in the geocache, and some of the people writing in there agreed with us about how amazing this tree is, and that those other people should quit leaving their trash around. My husband and I try to remember to bring a trash bag whenever we go hiking, because there’s always stuff to be picked up. I see that as an even more important way to honor the land spirits than to leave any sort of offering. I usually only offer water anyway, something I know will leave no trace, and something that’s actually quite precious in an arid area like this.

Looking up into the branches.

Looking up into the branches.

We got married last year in March, and around the same time bought a house a bit farther away from Purgatory Creek, so we can no longer easily walk to it. Getting married and buying a house at about the same time is not something I would recommend! We were so busy it was several months before we visited Grandfather Oak again. Finally, last fall we thought about how we hadn’t been over there in a long time, and decided to visit again.

As we hiked down the main trail, it didn’t take long for us to notice some work had been done on the park since the last time we were there. A sign stating this was Golden-Cheeked Warbler habitat had been put up towards the beginning of the trail. This is an endangered songbird that only nests in Central Texas, specifically only in old-growth Ashe Juniper (a.k.a. “cedar”) forests. A mature juniper tree has this beautiful shredding bark that the warblers use to build their nests. Female junipers also get blue berries on them that are eaten by several species of birds, including Cedar Waxwings, which were named after their favorite food.

This made me happy, but as we hiked, we started seeing the telltale signs that, ironically, someone had brought a Cedar Eater into the park. This is a huge machine that shreds trees, leaving big stumps and chunks of wood the size of my forearm in its wake. Most people around here really hate “cedars” because some people are allergic to their pollen, and they tend to take over pastures that have been overgrazed. (There’s also a myth that junipers are especially thirsty trees that suck up all the water, but I have found scientific studies that say otherwise.) Personally, I think the Ashe juniper is one of the most unfairly maligned native trees around here, hated even more than the mesquite. I think they’re being used as a scapegoat for a larger problem, which is mismanagement of land. If you overgraze your land, eventually nothing but junipers will be left because cattle don’t like the taste of them. If the land never burns, there’s nothing to thin the junipers out. It’s not the junipers’ fault they’re such good survivors under the conditions we’ve given them!

I have no idea why they decided this nature preserve needed cedar-eating. Here the junipers are mixed in with the oaks and persimmons like they’re supposed to be. “Mixed oak-juniper woodland” is the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s habitat, and you can’t have a mixed oak-juniper woodland without junipers!

We hiked down the trail past shredded chunks of juniper trees and shorn-off stumps lining the trail, and past limestone boulders that had been scraped and chipped and smashed by the heavy machinery. Then the trail flattens out and takes you through a more savannah-like area, out of the thicker forest. This is where the really big oaks live.

I gasped when I got to Grandfather Oak. For a few minutes my husband didn’t believe it was the actual tree. All the trees growing around it had been ripped apart. There weren’t even any junipers in that area to begin with. I don’t know why they decided they needed to shred the persimmon trees too. Most of the Spanish moss had been torn down as well, so instead of being hidden, the trunk of the oak tree was now completely exposed and viewable from the main trail.

Upon closer examination, it looks like they brought the Cedar Eater right up to the trunk of the tree and scraped off the bark in several spots, trying to get at the Anacua that was growing up through the oak’s roots. My husband was outraged. He said the tree could get oak wilt from these wounds. He wished he had known about this sooner, so he could have at least brought some pruning spray out here to cover the wounds. But it looked like this had happened a few months previously, because the wounds had already started to heal, and the stumps of the persimmon trees already had new sprouts growing out of them. Too late to do anything about it now.

We haven’t visited the oak tree since. I’m a little afraid to see what else they’ve done to “improve” the park. I don’t know why they decided to clear out all the trees from under the oak. Can they not tell the difference between a persimmon and a juniper? Is shredding trees so fun that they just got carried away? I wonder if they decided to clear under the tree to discourage teenagers from hanging out under there, but that doesn’t seem worth injuring a 400 year old oak tree for.

Well, as long as the oak tree didn’t get oak wilt, it will recover. The persimmons were already starting to sprout back from the stumps. The Spanish moss will probably grow back. That is, if people don’t make cedar-eating a regular thing there. (Don’t get me wrong, I know sometimes some tree-cutting is needed, but there are cleaner and more selective ways of doing it than using a Cedar Eater.)

I didn’t really mean this post to turn into a rant, but I wanted to write about Grandfather Oak, and it seemed misleading to pretend that the oak still looks the way it did when my husband proposed to me under it. It seems desecrated now. I guess that just shows that my husband and I have a very different view of these things than most people do. I think the point of a place like Purgatory Creek Natural Area is to mostly leave nature alone. That tree has survived just fine for hundreds of years without people messing with it. San Marcos has other parks that are more developed, with ADA accessible trails and picnic areas and so on. Purgatory Creek is wilder, with just some hiking trails through it, and that’s it. I think we need both kinds of parks, but the population of San Marcos is growing rapidly, and I’m afraid the parks department might feel the need to “develop” and “improve” the parks even more.

This is why I think it’s important for pagans to find their local sacred spaces, because a lot of them need to be taken care of. We no longer live in a society where groves, springs, hills, and trees are widely recognized as sacred places that need to be respected. We need to get out there and pick up the cans and bottles, and become involved in preserving wild places for future generations.

My husband and I should probably get out and enjoy what wildness is left around here as much as we can, while we still can.


One thought on “Local Sacred Spaces: Purgatory Creek’s Ancient Oaks

  1. Many thanks for the excellent tree photos. They make me think of the words of Longfellow which I learned on another continent some fifty-four years ago:

    “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
    Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
    Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
    Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
    Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
    Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.”

    I passed through San Antonio in February 1965 – on the way from Miami to Los Angeles, before settling for several years in Hawai’i. Now I’m in southern India.

    May you both be in good health and spirits. With warm greetings and blessings from Deepak (a name chosen – but never used (!) – by my orphan girls who simply call me “uncle”, or, whimsically, “uncle professor”!

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