Award-winning San Antonio poet Kamala Platt reflects on efforts to clear away elder trees at Backenridge Park.
The morning after the HDRC meeting, I awoke, intent on putting out to the world what I had witnessed the night before. A poem seemed the best way to do justice to all the profound concerns I had heard, but I wanted to give some narrative context to my poetry.
On February 16, 2022, San Antonio’s Historical Design Review Commission (HDRC), the last city entity that needs to grant permission for tree removal at Brackenridge Park, met at the Development Building on Alamo Street at South Flores. I watched the meeting virtually from the safety of my computer. After the planners’ presentation preferencing saving crumbling stone walls over maintaining the health of heritage trees, two hours of community testimonies (two minutes each) provided the reason and passion behind the nearly unanimous calls to “save the trees,” “stop the chop,” and protect birds and water.
Stories of childhood play (from a current young student whose dynamic plea received much audience applause to many folks who hold dear memories ranging across decades) were interspersed with narrations of the calm peace the park’s heritage trees offer in the face of adult troubles.
Concerns for the ecological, and cultural legacies that would be disturbed by cutting heritage trees—destroying thousands of years of combined growth—were effectively voiced. Indigenous folks spoke of centuries—the springs—waters, trees, and all of Nature in mutually beneficial relationship in this sacred place.
The need to preserve mature trees, “our lungs,” in the face of an increasingly chaotic climate was voiced. I was thankful to hear an arborist who had worked with the park’s trees speak to the integrity of trees targeted for removal. Messages received by phone were played after those attending spoke; several people spoke on behalf of organizations representing multitudes of community concern. Many felt the planners needed to literally go back to their drawing boards taking the community’s concerns to heart.
After testimonies, the commissioners asked questions and discussed. There were a few misconceptions about “leaning” trees and lack of understandings of tree and ecosystem health, but the main concern as vital—that beyond cutting down trees, the planners had no clear plans, only a few drawings that one testifier had unearthed from an obscure webpage. Despite the involvement of a diversity of engineers, the planners and staff were not well-versed in relevant knowledge.
HDRC Commissioner Gabriel Velasquez raised the troubling history of park’s segregated past—there were Mexican and Black areas to go, but only whites were allowed at the swimming pool at Lambert Beach, the crown jewel of the Conservancy’s plans for renovation. As I relate in the poem, this history shed new light on the plans for me and the argument to go back to a more inclusive planning table seemed imperative from then on. When a motion for denial of the plans was made and seconded, a plan presenter’s mic (or possibly that of another commission member) picked up a gasp of “son of a bitch.”
The back and forth between presenters, commission members and staff provided revelations that the planners were desperate to begin the tree-cutting before the egrets and herons produced eggs—so that by environmental protection law, the tree-cutting would not be put off until late Autumn. I realized this was why Parks had been out with noise-makers for the last week disturbing egrets and herons who had migrated back to their nesting grounds and begun nesting preparations, already. Ultimately, the decision was postponed by a week so the planners can come up with more explanation of what will happen next that necessitates healthy heritage tree-cutting.
What will happen next should be determined in community assessments of the best way to spend bond money approved for Brackenridge Park renovations. In light of the legacies of segregation, should the renovations even begin at Lambert Beach, or should they be more equitably spread across the Park? Should we be taking into deeper consideration what role the park should play in the future of the throngs of schoolchildren who at the end of this week came out to the Park with signs and shouts to “SAVE the TREES…”?
[EDITOR’S NOTE: HDRC members will take this proposal up again on Friday, February 25, at a special meeting and time still to be determined. Two-minute comments will be played during the meeting and may be called in to 210-206-HDRC(4372). Deceleration will share updates on our Facebook and Twitter pages.]
‘After the HDRC Brackenridge Trees Week-long Continuance Vote on the Night of 2-16-22’
Kamala Platt I write to echo the words of my Brackenridge Park compatriots. Words for trees that have lived 2/3rds of this city’s tricentennial history, Words for birds with prehistoric reptilian ancestry that predates humanity, Words for waters that brought the first indigenous peoples to this place of springs and caverns. I write to echo words of solidarity with the ways Nature spreads sustenance and equilibrium from soil microbes to migrations, to seasons and climate-- the way Nature moderates what man’s indifference destroys. I would like to end here but the words went on. When the motion for denial of plans for death-to-heritage-trees was seconded the microphone picked up the epithet against Nuestra Tierra Madre and it reverberated through the devices of virtual listeners. We heard the oath against us. Against the breath and blood of this place on our planet Against the egrets who give birth to a community that will connect us with the lands and peoples far to our south. Against this river that birthed peoples’ gatherings, here. Against our park that was once divided against some of us, that segregated swimming in the pool they plan to recreate once they remove the canopy of oaks that cool the waters once they remove Nature from the “urban”—read “rich white” part of the park. The epithet revealed what the plans obscured what is still alive against us— the buried histories we must come to terms with, “the layers [that] need to be resolved.” * Actions speak louder than words and a curse heard virtually across the universe is silent compared to the racket-makers in the park this February making noise to deny Great Egrets and Night Herons the calm to breed and nest and lay their eggs Rather the Planners would destroy the Park’s peace to make time this Spring for machines to crunch life out of the trees that hold the nesting birds. We ask to address the crimes of theft and segregation of violence against eco-communities including our own human ones. We pray to restore the waters that have left Left the Blue Hole, parched once again. Chipko connects us across the oceans— un abrazo para arboles— Embrace our trees, our mutual protection and sustenance. We are progeny of our parents, our planet’s love. Forget words, now—Let’s Act Like It. * Gracias to Gabriel Velasquez for these words and for pointing out the past prejudice that if not dealt with, will be recreated in celebration of the renovation plans.
Kamala Platt teaches through ASU Online for the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies in Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. She previously taught at UTPA (now UTRGV) in far south Texas, where she helped initiate an Environmental Studies Program and currently lives and works on San Antonio’s Westside and spends teaching downtime at the Meadowlark Center in Kansas. She is the author of numerous works, including “Weedslovers” (Finishing Line, 2014) and “On the Line” (Wings Press, 2010). Her most recent collection of poetry is “Gravity Prevails” (Flowersong Press, 2022).
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