2011 has been a year of exceptional heat and drought throughout most of the state of Texas, and 2012 isn’t looking much better. Although the city of San Antonio obtains water from the artesian Edwards Aquifer, this is a limited natural resource for a rapidly expanding population, all of whom live and work in a semi-arid climate at the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Not surprisingly, the city parks department and the water management system encourage and reward xeriscaping efforts in residential and public spaces.
Today is National Public Lands Day in the US, during which volunteers work to improve and restore parks, beaches, forests, and other public spaces. NPLD is partnered with the Obama intiatives America’s Great Outdoors and Let’s Move Outside, which address the issues of protecting our natural heritage, environmental education, and childhood obesity and inactivity. As a longtime tree-hugging hippie pinko liberal, I haven’t been happy with many of the Obama administration’s decisions, but when you combine environmental protection, outdoor activities, and social justice initiatives, I’m all over that like a nine-banded armadillo on a fire ant mound.
NPLD T-shirt for volunteers
I’ve been been somewhat depressed lately because my teaching and research schedules, combined with recently acquired responsibilities for developing the neuroscience module in our new medical school curriculum (“Extreme Makeover” – ugh!), severely limit my opportunities to travel. Not that they were ever that great, and I guess I should be happy that no air travel = greatly reduced carbon footprint. But I decided that rather than mope around about my reduced carbon footprint, I should get involved in a few local activities. National Public Lands Day seemed like a good fit, and the local public radio station was sponsoring a xeriscaping project at a new public library in South San Antonio.
Rainwater cachement system at Mission Library
At this point, I should explain something about large cities in the US; this something is not anything to be proud of, and it could certainly be the subject of several blog posts. Many large US cities – and San Antonio is no exception – have fairly steep gradients of socioeconomic privilege that sweep from one limit to the other. I don’t know why this is, but it is. San Antonio’s gradient sweeps roughly northwest to southeast, with the very wealthy and privileged concentrated in the northwest, and the poor and marginalized in the south and southeast. The Mission Branch Library opened in May 2011, in an economically depressed Southside community that had lacked such resources for far too many years. The library is next to Mission Park and the 18th century Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, restored in the 1930’s by the Works Progress Administration.
Mission San José, as seen from the library. Trees are dying due to the drought, rather than turning fall colors.
Behind the Mission Library are four metal cisterns that collect rainwater (when it rains) from the roof, and condensate from the air conditioning. The plan for the volunteers on NPLD was to hardscape the area around the cachement system with permeable gravel beds, and to prepare beds for drought-tolerant plants in a rain garden. The plants will be placed in the beds at a later date, perhaps when the drought subsides. We started at 7:30 AM, fueled by that staple of the San Antonionian diet, the breakfast taco – not too bad for your health, if you stick to the ones with beans, potatoes, and/or eggs, and avoid the ones with bacon and sausage. For 2.5 hours, I shoveled topsoil and mulch, raked mulch and gravel, and hauled/dumped mulch in a wheelbarrow. The mulch was rather annoying for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the dust that mixed with sunscreen to create a gritty brown paste on one’s skin, but it allowed us to make silly jokes such as “Thank you very mulch” and “Mulchas gracias.” After working steadily with shovel, rake, and wheelbarrow for a couple of hours, I decided that teaching in gross anatomy labs for 4-5 hours per day, four days a week, really isn’t such a bad job. I’m sure that my muscles, unaccustomed to real physical labor, will be complaining tomorrow. Below is a photo of the work we accomplished today, and I can’t wait to visit the library once the plants are in place.
Some of the hardscaping accomplished for the rain garden today.