America’s Best Idea

Today is my country’s 240th anniversary, and before I go to a local city park with my husband and in-laws to eat very unhealthy food from food trucks (I’m thinking some kettle corn, hot dogs, and I hope they have those chocolate-covered frozen bananas again this year, yum!), listen to a band play music on the stage while small children dance in front, and then at sundown watch people set off multicolored explosives, I wanted to post something quick for this occasion.

There aren’t a lot of things going on right now that make me proud of my country. We’ve been at war for 15 years, we keep having mass shootings, we keep having unarmed black men shot by police or vigilantes, we still treat rape as if it’s not that big of a deal, but for some reason what public restroom you use is a huge deal, and one of our major political parties is about to nominate someone who admires Mussolini and is loved by white supremacists.

Theodore Roosevelt and John MuirBut there is one thing that makes we swell with patriotic pride: our national parks. Ken Burns was absolutely right, that was America’s best idea. All the other things that make America great are ideas we got from other places, but the concept of the national park was born here. Yellowstone National Park was the first national park in the world. And while there is a lot of talk in Pagan circles about honoring the “founding fathers” on the 4th of July, I’ve always felt better about honoring Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir as great Americans worthy of hero cults.

(Yes, I know John Muir was from Scotland, and yes I know Theodore Roosevelt had some problematic things about his presidency, but dammit, they gave us the national parks! And Teddy was a Republican. Can you imagine what he’d think about the Republican Party today?)

The idea of the national parks is that contact with Nature is a human right, just like free speech or the right to vote. That’s a pretty revolutionary idea. And now there’s plenty of research out to prove that Nature is vital and necessary to human health, both mental and physical.

And though the national parks were founded “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” they led to the modern American environmental movement and the idea (or rediscovery of the idea) that nonhuman life has a right to exist too.

The last episode of Ken Burns’s documentary series on the national parks had a segment about the return of wolves to Yellowstone, and I admit it, that part made me cry.

Yes, our country is very flawed, and yes, even the national parks themselves are flawed (they’re horribly underfunded and they don’t do a good job attracting non-white visitors), but I still think they’re a thing that truly makes America great. This year is their 100th anniversary. We must do all we can to ensure they last another 100 years.

Big Bend National Park: A Holy Place

When American pagans think of sacred places, they usually think of somewhere like Stonehenge or ruins of Greek temples, but you really shouldn’t ignore the places closer to home. Some worry that it would be cultural appropriation about Native American culture, because they were here first and first regarded these places as sacred sites. However, I think the Native Americans were just the first human beings to recognize them (unless of course it’s a site they built themselves), and we should respect them for that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean these places belong to them. They were here for millions of years before our species even existed. I think they’re sacred in their own right, independent of any human observer, and should be recognized as such by anyone who believes that the natural world has sacred power.

I’m going to tell the story of my relationship with a place near and dear to my heart: Big Bend National Park.

Petroglyphs along the Rio Grande left there by kindred spirits from long ago.

Petroglyphs along the Rio Grande. Left there by kindred spirits from long ago?

Getting to Big Bend from here requires a day of driving west. I’ve heard people say the long, “boring” drive is a reason why they don’t go, and to those people I say, “Good!” If you think it’s not worth the drive, then you don’t belong there. It’s one of the least visited national parks in the country, and that’s one of its great advantages. I’ve never been there on Thanksgiving, but I’ve heard that’s their only “busy time”. If you go there during summer, like I usually do, there’s hardly anybody there. You certainly won’t get caught in a crowd like you might at the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone.

I live in the Texas Hill Country, which is on the eastern edge of the Edward Plateau ecoregion. Driving to Big Bend, I first have to pass through the rest of the Edwards Plateau, with its familiar oak-juniper woodlands, herds of goats, and peach orchards. Going west, the climate gets drier and drier. The woodlands open up into grasslands, and finally, after several hours of driving, you reach the Chihuahuan Desert. The vegetation changes to agaves, cactus, and the majestic ocotillos standing tall among rocky hillsides.

It’s really not a bad drive at all.

Driving through the harsh but beautiful desert landscape.

Driving through the harsh but beautiful desert landscape.

The last bit of “civilization” is Alpine, the largest city in the Trans-Pecos, with about 6,000 people. That’s big enough to have a supermarket, shopping center, and fast food restaurants. Stock up here, because after this, there are only gas station convenience stores in little towns. The Museum of the Big Bend on the Sul Ross State University campus is also worth a visit to stock up on some knowledge about the history of the place if you have never been here before.

From Alpine, Big Bend is straight south, into that “bend” in the Rio Grande that gave the region its name. Things are so “big” out here, that after you reach the borders of the park, you still have a long drive before you get to the headquarters at Panther Junction.

The first time I went to Big Bend I had just moved to Austin for college. I also just joined the Pagan Student Alliance, and that Beltane I went to my first pagan festival. My new friends, knowing I was majoring in biology, introduced me to a lady who worked for Bat Conservation International, and she started talking to me about an opportunity to have something to add to my resume. It was so strange “talking business” at a pagan festival with a lady who was wearing nothing but a sarong around her waist, but at the end of the conversation I had agreed to go with them on a trip in June to Big Bend National Park to study endangered Mexican long-nosed bats. My job was to be the camp cook, errand-runner, and laundry-doer for the scientists, who would be on a nocturnal schedule just like the bats.

I gave one of the other scientists a ride out there. Neither of us had been there before. When we arrived at Panther Junction and got out of the car, I was hit with the most wonderful fragrance. I asked my companion what it was, and she didn’t know. I laughed and said maybe it was fresh air. It wasn’t until later I found out that I was smelling creosote bush, which is known as “the smell of desert rain”. June is the rainy season out there, and when it rains, creosote bush gives out a scent that I think is invigorating.

A field of creosote bush.

A field of creosote bush.

The Chisos Mountains are the centerpiece of the park. Out in the middle of this harsh desert, these mountains rise up, creating an island of lush forest. There are several legends about the mountains being “enchanted” or “haunted,” which means people long before me recognized their spiritual power. Imagine being among the first human beings to make it out here, after crossing miles and miles of desert to find mountains with lush forests of Douglas fir, aspen, and madrone growing on top. There’s a winding road that takes visitors into “the Basin” where you’re surrounded by the mountains. On my first trip there, it had rained, and there were waterfalls cascading over the rock faces. The Basin is also a good place to camp in the summer, since it’s much cooler up in the mountains than the desert below.

The Chisos Mountains

The Chisos Mountains

To study the bats, we had to hike up the Emory Peak trail, higher into the mountains, to where the bats roosted, stay there all night catching bats in a net and attaching radio transmitters to them, and then hike back down in the morning. That night I went with the scientists so they could show me how it was done, but I had to go back earlier than everyone else so I could get up the next morning to cook. I was freezing up there because it had rained, and I had gotten sweaty on the hike up, so I ended up leaving at about 3 am. The problem was that now I was hiking down a mountain trail I was unfamiliar with, alone, in pitch darkness (with only a small, fading flashlight), with thoughts of mountain lions stalking me running through my mind.

When you’re in that situation, your mind starts playing tricks with you. I kept thinking I heard something coming up behind me, but when I stopped walking, the sound stopped. It took a long time before I figured out it was my canteen knocking against my backpack when I walked. I walked as fast as I could, and ended up startling some large animal just off the trail in the blackness outside the narrow beam of light coming from my flashlight. All I heard was a snort and crashing through the brush as it ran away from me, and I ran away from it. To this day I have no idea if it was a deer, a javalina, or a bear that I disturbed.

Later on, I lost the trail somehow. I must have gone down a deer trail, and slowly it faded out until I found myself standing in the middle of a patch of lechuguilla with no sign of any trail at all. I looked all around, and everything looked the same. I started to panic, and then I remembered what they told me to do if I had trouble, which was “curl up like a bear on the trail and wait until we come down and find you in the morning.” Yeah right! I wasn’t on the main trail, and I had no idea how far off I had wandered. I ended up finding a rock to sit on, turned off my flashlight, and just sat there a while. This turned out to be a good idea, because the adrenaline started to fade, my eyes adjusted to the starlight, and I calmed down as I looked at the black silhouettes of the mountains against the spectacularly starry sky. That was the first time I was anywhere that was dark enough at night to see the Milky Way.

After a while my eyes had adjusted to the point where I could actually see a small metal sign several yards away. I walked towards it and found the trail. I thanked the mountain spirits for not killing me this time, and managed to make it all the way back to the parking lot, to my car, and then safely back to the research station out in the desert where I was staying.

Sunset over the mountains.

Sunset over the mountains.

Modern pagans (and modern people in general), seem to either idealize Nature or hate it. They’ll say nature is good, and go camping at pagan festivals, until they get stuck with a thorn and then they want to go home back to air conditioning and soft beds. I think if you really want “nature-based spirituality”, then you have to embrace the fact that Nature is amazingly beautiful and healing to the spirit, and can also kill you. I probably wasn’t really in any danger as I hiked down the mountain that night, but it sure felt like it to me when that primitive part of my brain kicked in, and I was reminded that out there I’m not at the top of the food chain. And really, you’re not supposed to hike on those trails alone at night like that. If a mountain lion wanted to eat me that would have been her opportunity to do so. A few days after that, as I was running an errand in Study Butte, I bought a walking stick made of a sotol stalk. It’s become sort of a magic staff for me (I later burned my name in runes on it), but I also carry it on hikes to make any predators think twice about pouncing. (Though it’s more of a psychological thing. If a lion really set her mind to it, the staff probably wouldn’t help that much.)

Terlingua

Terlingua, an old mining “ghost town” turned quirky tourist spot next to Study Butte.

Since I was there during the rainy season in June, every morning there was a thunderstorm. Huge claps of thunder would blast through the desert, and out there nothing obstructed my view of the towering clouds and flashes of lightning. The desert plants soaked up the water and burst into bloom. After that, the sun would come out, and rainbows arched across the blue sky. Then the desert heated up, and by mid-afternoon it was baking hot until the sun went down, and nocturnal creatures like rabbits, coyotes, and kangaroo rats came out of their burrows as the temperature rapidly cooled. The next day the cycle would start over again. Fortunately the fridge at the research station was well stocked with beer, and I managed to sneak out into the desert to pour offerings for Thor and Heimdall and the desert spirits at sunset a couple of times.

That was my first trip to Big Bend.

A Vermilion flycatcher at the Cottonwood Campground.

A Vermilion flycatcher at the Cottonwood Campground.

A couple of years passed. I neared completion of my Bachelor’s degree at UT. When I graduated, it felt like my entire life fell apart. My boyfriend broke up with me the day before I walked across the stage, several of my friends moved to other states, and I had no idea what to do with my life. I had no job, and I was just starting to find out a Bachelor’s degree in biology is worthless, but I wasn’t sure if I could handle graduate school. None of my family or friends was in the sciences, so they couldn’t give me any advice. My relationship with that boyfriend was very unhealthy. I spent months putting a huge amount of emotional energy into trying to make the relationship work out, and then he dumped me right before my graduation. I felt worthless in just about every way.

I moved in with some friends after I had spent most of college living alone in an efficiency apartment. Living with supportive friends helped, but I still slipped into a deep depression. It felt like I had spent the last few years working so hard but everything I worked for had been worth nothing.

So I started planning another trip to Big Bend. This time I would go all by myself, and I wouldn’t tell anybody I was going. I told myself it was so that they couldn’t stop me, but part of me also wondered if anyone would notice I was gone. I needed to get out there and away from my pathetic little life.  I was also aware it was a bit dangerous taking a trip like this by myself, but I was at that point where you’re not quite suicidal, but you don’t really care if you just so happen to die somehow, you know? The thought of dying in Big Bend had a certain appeal.

DSCF2764

You are so small out here.

That morning I got up early and was loading the camping gear into my car, and of course one of my roommates caught me. I instantly realized the whole sneaking away idea was one of those stupid things that the fog of Depression comes up with, and my roommates would have noticed and would have called the police to report me missing. She made me promise I wasn’t going to kill myself and would be careful, and then she told me she’d let my other friends know not to worry, and she wouldn’t worry about me until I was gone for more than a week. Then she thought it was an awesome idea for me to take this pilgrimage.

I spent a week in Big Bend by myself. Since it was summer, I camped in the Basin where it was cool. I had only been there a little while before the depression was swept away. Since this was the first time I wasn’t there “on business” I got to leisurely hike lots of trails I hadn’t before, like the Lost Mine Trail. The rangers advised not hiking on any of the desert trails in the summer because of the potentially deadly heat, so I didn’t. I did take some of the scenic drives through the park, and at one point became overwhelmed by the mountains. It was when I was looking at an interpretive panel explaining how some rock formations in front of me were built, and I saw the tiny road I had been on an hour or so before off there in the distance, with a tiny little car driving along it, and realized how tiny I am, and how huge these mountains were that took millions of years to form. Some of the rocks in the park are billions of years old. It actually wasn’t a very pleasant feeling. I get a similar feeling when looking up at stars. “Feeling small” isn’t a strong enough description for those moments, but I still think that’s a good thing to experience. If more people really knew how small they are, they might change their priorities a bit.

Looking out over the mountains from the top of another mountain at the end of the Lost Mine Trail.

Looking out over the mountains from the top of another mountain at the end of the Lost Mine Trail.

When I got back, I enrolled in graduate school. That turned out to be another really, really difficult time in my life. I didn’t know what I was getting into. My thesis didn’t work out. I thought I would have to quit and had wasted all that time and money for nothing, and I still wouldn’t be able to find a job. Thankfully, the department chair, when I thought he was about to kick me out, suggested I change my degree plan. It freed me up to take classes I was much more interested in, like Ornithology, Mammology, and Field Botany. For those classes, we had field trips where we traveled all over Texas learning about the different ecosystems, and I ended up going back to Big Bend two more times. It reminded me of why I got into this career field to begin with.

After I abandoned my thesis and started taking those classes, I finally learned what I wanted to learn this whole time. I learned bird calls, and animal tracks, and how to identify plants, all knowledge my previous thesis advisor thought was useless trivia, while real scientists program ecological models on computers or run electrophoresis gels in a lab all day.

A Great Horned Owl looks down from a cottonwood tree.

A Great Horned Owl looks down from a cottonwood tree.

I took my husband to Big Bend in the summer of 2013. He had never been before. I told him about all my past history with the place, and now that I was happy, done with graduate school and with a job I liked and a nice husband, I wanted to share it with him. We went to Davis Mountains State Park for a couple of days first. Neither of us had been there before. We stayed at the beautiful Indian Lodge. That was so nice, he said maybe we should stay here the whole time, but I told him Big Bend was even better, so we went there next, and he said I was right. All the pictures in this post are from that trip.

The Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park.

The Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park.

While we were there, I bought a book at the gift shop called Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent and read it on the drive home. It was interesting reading about these now-familiar places in the park and how they turned on some people. There are several tales of people who died of heat and thirst. I always give offerings of water to the land spirits for that reason. When people have actually died out there from not having enough water, giving some away to the spirits is a huge sacrifice. There are also stories of people freezing to death, getting hit by lightning, and even suicides and murders, but no one eaten by a mountain lion.

I really related to some of the people’s stories, like the old man in the first story who hiked the Outer Mountain Loop without enough water (and possibly suffering from the early stages of dementia) and died of thirst. He left a journal of the whole thing. He had been going to Big Bend for years, sometimes taking his kids with him. I got the sense that he felt a similar love for Big Bend that I do, and when he figured out he was going to die there, it didn’t seem like such a bad way to go.

My husband and I didn’t bring enough water hiking the Window Trail. One bad thing about that hike is you go downhill first when you’re fresh, and then have to go uphill to get back when you’re tired. We ran out of water about halfway back up, and were feeling pretty bad by the time we got to our vehicle. It’s a popular trail, so I’m sure if we really got into trouble we would have been found soon enough, but you never know. One story in the book was of a man who died hiking Grapevine Hills, which is a short, 2 mile trail in the desert right next to the road. He didn’t bring any water, got disoriented, wandered off the trail, and his body was found in an arroyo.

Looking out The Window.

Looking out The Window.

The Window was worth it though, because at the end you can look out over the desert for miles. As my husband was looking out, and I was getting a drink of water in the shade, we heard this strange bird call I’d never heard before. My husband yelled at me to come look, and a golden eagle swooped past. Of course I didn’t get a picture of it, and when I talked to a ranger later, they said they didn’t know of any golden eagle nests down there. But we’re absolutely sure it was a golden eagle after looking up its call on the internet when we got home. That was the first and only wild eagle I’ve seen.

I know a lot of people are afraid of the wild because of the dangers, though I’m much more likely to die in a car accident on my way to work than anything else. There’s just something humbling about being somewhere like that where human beings aren’t in control. For most of us it’s rare to be in a place that hasn’t been altered and tamed for your comfort, a place where there’s no air conditioning and all the plants have thorns and there are animals there that look at you as a food source. And I think that makes it even more important to visit these places sometimes and get reminded of what that’s like.

One of the things I look forward to about having a kid one day is bringing her (or him) to Big Bend as soon as she’s old enough. I thought about that a lot when I was there with my husband. I want to pass on my love and reverence for that place to another generation.

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

This May I’m going to Sul Ross University in Alpine for a week-long workshop for STEM educators. I just got the itinerary, and most of the week will be spent taking classes on things like scanning electron microscopy and GIS, but it looks like at least on Friday we’ll be going to Big Bend for a Field Geology workshop, and then to the Davis Mountains that evening for a Star Party at the McDonald’s Observatory. I hope I get time to sneak a quick hello to the mountain spirits, the rivers spirits, and the desert spirits. It’s not quite the same going there “on business” as going there when I can do what I like, but at least it’s a free trip to Big Bend. All my expenses are being paid by the university, including room and board, and I’m getting a stipend.

I haven’t been to many other national parks, and I haven’t been to any other national parks more than once. I haven’t gotten to travel much in my life in general. But I think even if there are more impressive parks out there that I may see some day, Big Bend will still seem special to me.

Some locals enjoying the shade at the Cottonwood Campground.

Some locals enjoying the shade at the Cottonwood Campground.

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.