Saturday, January 29, 2011

Changes at the San Marcos Nature Center

Changes are in the works for the San Marcos Nature Center.  A new manager, with a future location, seeks to give visitors a cleaner and more natural experience. 

Jenna Winters was named the new manager of the SMNC in late December of last year.  She is also pursuing a doctoral degree in biology at Texas State University.  Winters worked alongside the past manager, Julie King, for almost five years, until King moved with her husband to Colorado.  King, however, said she is very supportive of the city’s decision to have Winters replace her.

“When she decides she’s going to do something,” said King in a phone interview.  “She’s not going to do it half heartedly.  She’ll get it done.”

The SMNC was closed and unattended for a month before Winters reopened it.  She said that her main focus is to clean the place up so as to do a better job at its mission of environmental education. 

The gardens behind the building are overrun with leaves and other debris.  Winters, however, has enlisted volunteers from the Texas State horticultural department and professional gardeners to get the SMNC’s many outdoor exhibits back into shape.

Meanwhile, the city has made plans to move the SMNC from its current location on Riverside and I-35 to the Purgatory Creek Greenspace at the corner of Wonder World Drive and Hunter Road within the next two years.

Both Winters and King agreed that I-35’s proximity has damaged the SMNC’s natural landscape and atmosphere.  The SMNC has been plagued in the past by littering, and occasionally a homeless person was found sleeping on the porch. However, Winters said she believes the new location will change all of this.

SMNC’s new facilities are also planned to be totally energy efficient by using solar and wind power.

“It’ll be really cool when we have kids in here on a tour,” Winters said.  “We’ll be able to tell them ‘and all the fish tanks are powered by the solar panels on the roof.  The building itself will be an educational display.”

The new facilities will be focused on cultivating native plant and wildlife species.  Texas Parks and Wildlife, on their website, lists the Hill Country as a home to feral hogs, deer and possibly even mountain lions. No, there will not be mountain lions in the petting zoo.

But what is to become of the current facility?  Marci Nance, aquatic biology senior, is worried that the efforts of volunteers like her will be discarded.

“I just don’t want to see this place to get lost in the shuffle,” said Nance. 

Nance, like many other volunteers, has a personal project at the site.  She is building a three-tiered flowerbed which she hopes to fill with different varieties of native flowers.

Other major aesthetic improvements include a large mural on the indoor wall of the nature center depicting the aquatic life of the San Marcos River.

The city has not finalized any plans so far about the future of the current nature center, but Winters said that she hopes they will turn the building into a trailhead, and keep most of the gardens that the volunteers have spent so much time trying to restore.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Austinites Celebrate Celtic

Plaids and pipes were on display at Fiesta Gardens along Lady Bird Lake in Austin for the first weekend of November.  The celebrations marked the 14th annual Austin Celtic Festival. 
            People from all around central Texas came to the two-day event to sample some of the native culture of the British Isles, Ireland, Brittany and Nova Scotia. 
            Performances were made throughout the weekend by Celtic musicians of both traditional styles, like the Silver Thistle Pipes and Drums troupe, and more modern performers such as The Prodigals.
            One of the traditional performers was Thomas Grauzer.  Grauzer uses his Celtic harp and beautiful voice to sing songs and tell stories of the old country.  He says that he likes to give his audiences a bit of folklore when he sings.
            “It’s important to know the story of the music as well as the music itself,” Grauzer said.
            Other performances such as the Highland Games dazzled their audiences with their competitors’ remarkable athleticism.  Mike Baab, the ACF Heavy Games coordinator and distinguished UT football player, demonstrated the caber toss.  A caber is wooden pole that is almost 20 feet long and can weigh up to 175 pounds.  Participants balance these behemoths, then pitch them end over end as far as they can.
            People who take their history very dear to heart aren’t hard to find at this festival.  Texas Coritani is a reenactment group that is based out of Austin and has members all over central Texas.  They displayed full village reenactments from the Celtic and Viking Iron Age on the outskirts of the festival.  All day long, the performers dressed in the historical garb of the ancient Celts and Vikings and lived in tents that are built in the exact tradition of their ancestors. 
            Bob Rafferty has been reenacting the lifestyle of the Celtic Irish at ACF for eights years in a row.  He said that before he found Irish mythology, he was learning about the ancient Greeks and Romans.
            “When I found out that my people had a history and culture that was every bit as rich if not richer, I felt so cheated,” Rafferty said.
            His love for history and mythology, fueled by his own Pagan beliefs drives him to be as accurate as possible to the ancient ways of his Celtic forefathers.  Rafferty even maintains an impressive collection of actual Bronze and Iron Age artifacts that he purchased from museum sales in Europe.
            Finally, no festival is complete without a wide array of vendors.  Things Celtic, a Celtic regalia shop based in Austin, attended the festival for its 14th time, and has never missed a single event.  Their vendor tent was filled with glittering Celtic jewelry and exquisitely woven Scottish kilts.
            A new shop to the event was Cedar Stevens’ Natural Magick Shop.  Stevens is a practicing Pagan and uses her degree in botany to create a wide variety of incenses, oils and brews. 
            “My degree helps me use scientific method whenever I make these,” Stevens said as she lit magical smelling incense in honor of the Celtic Holiday of Samhain, a seasonal holiday which falls about the beginning of November.
            Smelling the fragrance of Stevens’ incense while watching the people dance to the sounds of the bagpipes can transport you to the homelands of these ancient people.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Druids: A Book Review

The Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis
Published:Constable & Company Lmt.
Date: 1994

I found this book to be arguably the best book on ancient Druidism, and Celtic culture I’ve ever read. He lays out exactly what evidence there is to support each claim made about Celtic society.

One of my favorite chapters was the one on Druid rituals. I very much liked seeing that he takes Caesar’s claims about things like the “wicker man” with a serious grain of salt. In most of my readings before hand they take Caesar’s writings as the end all beat all truth about Celtic culture.

I have personally never really bought into that idea. The fact that Caesar is the only one to make such a claim, and the fact that he was at war with the Celts at the time, strongly suggests that it was merely propaganda to scare the Roman populace into wiping out the Celts. Human sacrifice is mentioned in vague terms in the Irish sagas, but I never saw any reference to something as extravagant as the wicker man. I believe that human sacrifice was apparent in the Celtic world, but I agree with Ellis that it was something that was not common, and was used as a last resort. Certainly not like how the Romans were using sacrifices as mere entertainment.

The chapter on the wisdom of the Druids really breaks down all the different aspects of Druid duties in Celtic nations. He supports each of his claims with strong quotes from both Greek, and Roman writers as well as insular Celtic texts. I found the section on Druid books most interesting as very few people know of these. The strongest references to the idea are in Christian conquest notes about the burning of pagan libraries in Ireland. This clearly debunks the myth that the Celts and Druids were an illiterate society.

I only had one real disagreement with Ellis.  He refers to Celtic lands a number of times as the "Celtic Empire."  I don't see how this could be as there was no emperor or centralized government to speak of.  To my understanding, the Celtic tribes were only loosely tied to each other much more like the Iroquois nations across the pond. However, I see his argument that the Druids and especially the Archdruid would hold the highest power.  I just don't think that it constitutes an empire.

The final chapter was focused on the Druid revival. I give people like Iolo Morganwg points for stepping out of the box and “attempting” to revive the culture. However, I agree with Ellis that romantic ideals should not replace actual facts. The last section of the chapter addresses the modern “New Age” movement that has been quick to jump on the idea of Celtic culture. It made me sad to read that people are hijacking this incredibly beautiful culture, and turning it into something completely off the mark from what it really was, and still is. This last chapter has compelled me to learn more Gaelic, and keep as much of the culture alive as I can. I do not want to see myself or ADF associated with the “New Age” hijacking of an endangered culture.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Art of Seminole Canyon

As far as the eye could see, there was almost no break in the horizon from trees or hills.  The road just went on and disappeared over the earth’s curve.  My father and I watched as vultures circled over us as we got out of the car at Seminole Canyon National Park

Seminole Canyon is located in west Texas, only a few minutes from the Pecos River and the Mexican border.  It’s located in the middle of the Chihuahua desert.  You really get a good idea of why the root word of deserted is desert when you look out over this wide expanse of hardly anything more than a shrub for miles.

But this isn’t what my dad and I had come to see.  Seminole Canyon is home to some of the oldest pieces of art in the world, Neolithic Cave Paintings.  The wall art in these caves have been estimated at or around the 9th century BCE, roughly 12,000 years old. 

Many were depictions of wild animals like deer, panthers, squirrels and even a centipede.  There were also many images of people in shamanistic garb captured by the artists and preserved on these canyon walls.

One of these shaman is commonly called The White Shaman as he is seen as a tall human figure wearing a long white cloak wrapped around his whole body.  This is one of two figures that were given huge 3D model replicas by modern artists.  The model of the White Shaman has a large slit from the top of his chest to the ground and is oriented to the raising and setting sun on the spring and fall equinox.  On those days, the sun shines straight through the opening for a truly magical moment.

The other image immortalized by an artist sits outside the canyon’s visitor center.  He is called the Maker of Peace. He’s seen draped in a deer skin mantle and holding hunting tools and a staff, and perched on his staff is large black raven.  His arms are spread wide to embrace the whole land, and his head is that of a deer with antlers, the most important animal to these ancient people.

It really amazes me how across the world, gods and spirits that are associated with hunting and wild animals have antlers or horns on human bodies.  The Hindus have Pashupati, the Celts in Gaul worshipped Cernunnos, the Saxons believed in Hern the Hunter, and now here we see an ancient spirit of the hunt with the same features.

My father and I left the canyons and the ancient rock shelters and went back to our tents. Seeing art that was as old as it was amazingly beautiful was a profound experience.

It is sad that the art is now fading quickly.  The construction of damns nearby has changed the climate and the paintings are already beginning to fade.  Luckily, I was able to take lots of pictures and will be able to admire them forever there as the people of Seminole Canyon would have wanted us to.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Trip to NYC

My mom, sister and I recently made our first trip to the Big Apple. The three of us went for the main purpose of going to actual Broadway productions. We had seen the traveling performers before, but we were in for a whole new game in NYC.

We got up early the morning of our flight and flew from Austin to Dallas to Newark. When we arrived we took a taxi shuttle to the Marriott hotel on Time Square. After enduring a three hour ride that only covered 17 miles, I will never complain about Austin traffic again. We were incredibly lucky to get a room on the 20th floor over looking the famous ball drop.

After a quick change we dropped back down to street level to get in line for the first of our shows, The Addams Family. Bebe Neuworth played Morticia while Gomez was acted out by Nathan Lane.

The two together were positively hysterical. “With the shirt cut all the way down to Venezuela,” Morticia was as gorgeous as she was side-splittingly funny. Gomez would do his fantastic Spanish accent leaving me roaring.

The next day, Katie and I roamed the streets of Manhattan looking for cool shops and venders. There seems to be an African immigrant selling something about every 30 paces.

My mom and I forced Katie to take pictures with the infamous Naked Cowboy of Time Square. He’s actually even funnier in person believe it or not. The guy really embodies the spirit of NYC in that he’s doing his thing and nobody had better get in his way.

Later in the day we saw a non-musical play called Lend Me a Tenor. There were a lot of big name actors in this one not the least of which is Tony Shaloub of the TV series Monk. The humor of this play made the Addams Family seem, well, Dead.

Every second was spent laughing at Shaloub spitting wax fruit into the audience or Antony laPaglia trying to sound like an Italian opera singer.

The last show of the trip was called Promises Promises. I’ll have to say in wasn’t my favorite. It’s a big 60’s period piece and wasn’t written with musicals in mind. The leading actress was the ever so famous Kristen Chenoweth. She was very pretty and can sing like no other. The play’s choreography blew me away and really saved the show.

On our last day, we spent the entire time riding on the top of a double-decker bus snapping as many pictures as we could of Little Italy, Wall Street, Empire State building and countless more.

The last major adventure of the trip was trying to get home. The flight had been canceled and we couldn’t seem to get onto another plane. Luckily an agent named, and I’m not making this up, Athena truly came to our rescue and got us on a flight all together and really saved the day.
We arrived back in Austin around 12:30 AM very tired and totally taken aback by what an adventure we had had in just three days. I know for sure that NYC has not seen the last of us.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Nature Hike in Austin

This spring break I went on a little nature hike with a few friends.  We went to Mayfield Park in Austin Texas.  The two girls with me were Elspeth and Shannan. 

The three of us started our little trek through a small garden at the entrance to the park.  The area was filled with beautiful flowers of all kinds.  There were many structures preserved there from the days of the Spanish Colonialism period.  Some were sort of small and half way dilapidated like knee high walls of old buildings.  Others were still standing in all their splendor like the pigeon roost.  

The grove was full of trees which created giant arbors over the entire garden.  The shadows that they cast were enchanting to see.  The shade also was well appreciated in the afternoon Texas sun.

Large and beautifully plumed peacocks patrolled the area for the tiniest pests that might make the tragic mistake of invading their flower beds.  Some of the peacocks would fly up to the branches of the arbors which could only remind me of great phoenixes from fairytales.

After Eliegh, Shannan and I had had our fill of the tailored beauty that was the gardens, we descended into the lower arroyo.  There, the natural beauty of the park enveloped us.  Before we had gone more than 50 paces off the normal path, we found ourselves surrounded by trees older than this country.  

We moved through the brush until we reached one of the streams that ran through the area.  The water was narrow and there were no man-made bridges where we were.  We stopped to take in the sounds as well as the sights of stream.  Small rocks and large limbs had created, over time, miniature waterfalls; some were about knee height.

After some time had gone by and lots of pictures had been taken, we went back to the cars to head to the other side of the park, where the highest point in Travis County stands, Mt. Bonnell.

It was time for the spiritual aspect of our trek.

Shannan is Eleigh’s spiritual pupil.  Shannan was going to be given a test of self confidence.  She had to climb up the steps of the mountain with a blindfold.  The only hope she would receive would be Eleigh and I keeping her from running into people on her way up.  

Slowly but surely we made our way up slopes.  Surprisingly Shannan made very few deviations from the best path up the mountain.  When we reached the top, she could remove the blindfold and take in the city of Austin from the highest place she could without a plane.  We all stood there in awe of the unique beauty of the city.  

Homes and tall buildings seem to be placed inside the groves of huge trees in a sort of harmony between the nature and the human society.  I’ve been to many environmentally active cities, but I’d have to say Austin is the only place I’ve seen buildings and trees existing so close to each other and in such numbers.

We moved back down the hill as thunder clouds headed our way.  We stopped one last time at the base to have a moment of reverence for the earth we live in.  

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Riding on the Devil's Backbone

This past Saturday was my first official biker trip.  My father and I rode out of San Marcos, TX, on Ranch Road 32, AKA The Devil's Backbone. 

The Backbone is a stretch of road in central Texas that has earned a name as one of the most haunted places in the state.  After stopping at a bar called Riley's on the Backbone one night, the bartender recanted stories that his customers had told him on their trips.  There were stories about ghost cowboys and the spirits of Native American medicine men trapped out on the Backbone, wandering forever.

I've had my own creepy experiences out there.  I was once on my way to Wimberley, TX, for an interview.  I was with my photographer, Goya Monroe. at the time along with my photographer on a early February afternoon when the sun seemed to disappear.  It wasn't "night time" dark but it certainly felt dark for 3-4 o'clock.  Fog was rolling in and I suddenly only had about 30 yards of visibility.  We looked around and suddenly noticed all the dead trees, crows and vultures that are always prevalent in central Texas, but there were many now all over the place.

Goya was starting to get really scared.  She urged me to hurry because she felt like any minute some Texas chainsaw murderer was about to jump out into the middle of the road and kill us both.

This time though, I was going with my dad.  He's a seasoned motorcycle vet and the two of us, in our leathers and big loud motors, ought to be scarier than anything out there.

We rode out around 1:00pm from San Marcos on Ranch Road 12.  Both of our bikes are cruisers. My dad was on his Honda Shadow 1100, while I was on the Suzuki 650 Savage.

When the buildings melted away, it was the forest itself that shadowed the road in thick arbors.  There were tons of Texas live oaks whose trunks were thick and wound upwards in gnarled  shapes that in the sun seemed more elegant and beautiful than before.  As we neared the turn off to rr32, those were mostly replaced by massive thorny mesquite trees and patches of barrel cacti.

Deer stood along side the road giving us lazy looks before going back to their grazing.  There wasn't a whole lot of other living animals, but there were certainly a lot of dead skunks, armadillos and opossum that just weren't fast enough to clear the road.  Occasionally, I would be too slow to spot one and  get too close for comfort.  The smell of dead animal hit me, and when you can't use your hands to cover your nose, that smell gets a little strong.

Another kind of wildlife roamed the highway, the two-legged kind ridding steel horses.  Bikers of every form were out to enjoy the Devil's Backbone.  Some rode alone and others in packs of up to six.  Every kind of bike cruised across the hills, from the big V-twins to the new Flying Spiders.

 When average drivers are seldom aware of the subtle communications between bikers on the open road. We don't wave to each other, we point each other out in acknowledgment.  It's more like a salute, a downward point with an open hand.

I've often wondered why it's like that.  There's a great camaraderie between all bikers. I guess it has to do with the fact that we don't let danger get in the way of living lives.  Maybe it's a sort of, "I'll see you in Hell."  It would certainly be appropriate for the Devil's Backbone.

My dad and I weaved down the road away from city life and farther into the bush.  Then we cut a tight corner and I looked over my shoulder to see the trees all disappear to reveal that we had ridden out onto a ridge and I could now look out and see for miles.  There were hills about a mile away separated by a deep valley that looked like clawed fingers had been raked across the earth to form them.

Then I looked to my right and saw the same thing as my dad and I roared out onto the top of an elongated mountain.  I wanted to look longer at the scene while riding, but the road twisted back and forth, left and right, up and down with the top of the ridge.  I had to stay focused.

I couldn't contain myself any longer and let out a good long "WOOO HOOOOO!!!"