It was like drifting from one waking dream to another.
I first encountered that certain fantastical aspect of the Waller Creek Conservancy, which plans a series of high-design parks along a neglected stretch of downtown waterway, at a large dinner party in the Four Seasons penthouse of Tom and Lynn Meredith. All sorts of important and influential Austinites were present on that fateful and whimsical night. Despite the mammoth scale of the proposed project, I sensed that those gathered in the room high above the creek, which included fellow Conservancy visionaries, Melanie Barnes and Melba Whatley, could get it done.
Over the next few years, a series of magical benefit parties and concerts were staged with the help of Lonesome Dove chef Tim Love and C3 partner Charles Attal at the Stubb’s complex right on the banks of the creek. This time, there was something tangible to celebrate: The group had broken ground on its Waterloo Park segment with the generous help of a $15 million grant from Ross Moody and the Moody Foundation.
Well, this year’s dinner was like walking on a cloud. Everybody, including Conservancy CEO Peter Mullan and his gracious wife, Melanie Mullan, a strategic advisor, fairly glowed with felicity. Melanie led a group of her lively friends in a conversation at our table that could, from my perspective, have gone on all night. But then there was a concert by alt-pop duo Oh Wonder waiting just outside the door of the events room.
Victor Emanuel Conservation Awards
Mickey Burleson wanted to set the record straight. She did not plant Blackland Prairie seeds by moonlight at her ranch with her late husband, BobBurleson, because of some nebulous spiritual reasons. The pair, credited with restoring some of the last remnants of a critical and highly endangered ecosystem, simply broadcast the carefully collected grains after the end of long days because the seeds would have turned too hot if stored with other remnants from their old-fashioned grass seed harvester.
In probably the most thoughtful charity swag ever, guests at the Victor Emanuel Conservation Award luncheon, which benefits Travis Audubon, each received a small “Ecosystem in a Bag” of more than 1,000 grains from Native American Seed company.Some of the seeds in the Blackland Prairie Mix were descendants of those collected by the Burlesons. Heaven on Earth.
Mickey Burleson accepted this year’s award from titular award from Valerie Bristol, the chief warrior on the Balcones Canyonlands preservation. She was last year’s honoree. I’ve doted on everyone who has received this prize, including its namesake, Victor Emanuel, the nature guide who set next to me during the luncheon. Consider the rest of the honor roll: Bob Ayres, Georgean Kyle, Paul Kyle, J. David Bamberger, Carter Smith and Andy Sansom.
To borrow a phrase from frequent emcee Evan Smith at an earlier benefit, they all could be my spirit animals.
You’d need a heart of stone to turn away from the stories generated by American Gateways, the group that provides legal services to immigrants who can’t afford them. The staff in Austin, San Antonio and Waco, along with an army of pro bono attorneys, deal with heartbreaking cases every day. They don’t need to be told that our immigration system is broken. They are on the front lines.
The second annual Gateway Awards were distributed during a taco dinner at the new AFS event room at its complex in the Linc. (I saw the bedazzling movie musical, “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” there on my birthday last week.) The entertainment at the banquet was pretty amazing, too, starting with the New Generation Children’s Choir, made up of African refugees, and ending with San Antonio-based, all-female Mariachi Las Coronelas, who know how to get an audience going.
Juan Belman, a dreamer and the University of Texas graduate who famously confronted President Barack Obama at the Paramount Theatre, picked up the Social Justice Award. Lawyer Valerie Barker of Baker Botts, LLP, was named Pro Bono Attorney of the Year. Charismatic Jae Kim from Chi’Lantro Korean barbecue acclaim, won the Immigrant of Achievement Award.
Makes me proud that American Gatewaysis based right here in Austin.
Sherry Matthews knew exactly how to stage a fitting tribute to her late companion and leading Austin architect Dick Clark.
She and her team gathered almost 1,000 of Clark’s admirers at the Paramount Theatre. She drafted former University of Texas School of Architecture Dean Fritz Steiner to give the event extra dignity and stature. She spared a few minutes for leaders who graciously recognized Clark’s legacies to UT students, to cancer research and to what he called his family, his firm, which has produced some of the city’s best designers and buildings, especially in the realm of restaurants and bars, but also splendid modern residences.
Yet Matthews’ most powerful tool was a long, beautifully composed documentary film about Clark that should be seen by anyone who wants to understand our city. It also reminded me how much I wish my life was more like Clark’s. He embraced every moment and all the people around him. He didn’t sweat the small stuff and loved nothing better than to work out the infinite puzzles of design.
And, oh yes, one of Clark’s buddies, Willie Nelson, rounded out the tribute with a few songs. Going in, attendees received a clever napkin printed with the evening’s program; going out, a gorgeous little booklet about Clark’s work with words from the rumpled master: “Architecture is not just about a building. It’s about people. No matter how beautiful or functional the design, architecture’s true meaning is found in those who live their lives in the spaces we create.”
Celebration of Children in Nature
John Covert Watson must have had something to do with it. The visionary who purchased a trashed-out sinkhole above the Pedernales River and helped turn it into Westcave Preserve, a premier nature education site, must have also paved the way for the extraordinary partnerships that the nonprofit has forged with larger efforts such as the City of Austin’s Cities Connecting Children to Nature program.
That campaign won the E. Lee Walker Award for Collaboration during the Celebration of Children in Nature gala at the Four Seasons Hotel. Others included Bonnie Baskin of the Science Mill in Johnson City, who took home the John Covert Watson Award for Vision, and Jennifer L. Bristol, who accepted the Westcave Award for Enduring Dedication, and Keep Austin Beautiful, which snagged the John F. Ahrns Award for Environmental Education.
Each honor was accompanied by an adroit video and inspirational speeches. You couldn’t walk away without feeling the social tides were running in the right direction.
Party for the Parks
This event should make everyone who loves nature, communities and our modern city beam with pride. Brazos Hall was filled with mostly young, mostly fit, mostly fabulous fans of the Austin Parks Foundation, which picks up the tab for a lot of our underfunded parklands, including some of the total for the recently unveiled redo of Republic Square Park.
Everything about this group is admirable. And wandering among all the open, accessible guests, I couldn’t help thinking about the evolution of attitudes toward big challenges in Austin. When I arrived in the early 1980s, there were plenty of leaders who felt that big improvements should be done by the federal or state governments, the latter often through UT. As time when on — and city built more resources — people turned to city government.
But that’s not where the action is. No, the action is here among the people willing to roll up their sleeves and take care of our needs, among them our universally loved, but sadly sometimes neglected parks and natural areas. One last bravo to C3 and the Austin City Limits Music Festival for pumping millions into the Foundation every year. You’ve more than earned your permanent place in our little heaven.
I missed the introductory salute from former first lady Laura Bush and I might have taken the final chair on the back row.
Slender and soft-spoken, Emanuel appeared at the UT Thompson Conference Center because of his recently published memoir, “One More Warbler” (UT Press). A tremendous storyteller, he had never before written a book, in part because his business, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, takes up so much time.
So he dictated it to an amanuensis. I, like everyone else in the room, can’t get enough of it.
From the stage, he related a few birding adventures, apt for this gathering sponsored by Travis Audubon, including the time took the assistant curator of the Houston Museum of Natural History to Galveston and was about to give up on any special sightings when along a low dune line — flying behind other migrating birds — comes an Eskimo Curlew, a species now considered possibly extinct.
It’s kind of amazing that this is Emanuel’s first book, given his close friendships with key authors, including Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton and Roger Tory Peterson, along with Austin literary virtuosos Stephen Harrigan and Larry Wright. This night, the former interviewed Emanuel on the stage, while the latter asked adroit questions from a house mike.
Emanuel, a South Austin almost-neighbor of ours, returned to one of his favorite themes again and again: Bird lovers are transformed by the powers of observation and thus become more integrated into the natural world.
Despite Emanuel’s demurrals, he is, as Harrigan averred, one of the greatest birders in the world.
Back from two weeks at a ranch in Bosque County. Bliss. Pure bliss.
Kip and I took our two dogs, Lucky and Nora. We brought along a dozen books and two dozen magazines. Kip wrote. And wrote and wrote. Brought tears to my eyes.
We cooked and ate and drank. Took the dogs on daily hikes, some on the ranch, some on country roads, others in nearby state parks. The ranch is west of Meridian, the county seat, known as the “Top of the Hill Country,” which is near four state parks.
Because it is situated on the North Bosque River at the base of the Great Plains, the wind is ever present. Another blessing. We spent two weeks there last August and found it entirely pleasant on the porch of the 100-year-old Norse-style stone-fronted house during one of the hottest fortnights of the year.
The bird find this time was the Vermillion Flycatcher. I’d read about this tiny, brilliantly hued bird in Roy Bedichek‘s masterpiece, “Adventures with a Texas Naturalist.” He documented how the spread of stock ponds in Texas pulled its range northward.
Well, I’d never seen one. But on the far side of our front fence was a big oak that served as a resting point for birds fighting the wind. Kip spotted it twice in flight; I was lucky enough to fix it in my binoculars twice.
The other new species for us: Lark Sparrow.
Others more familiar, almost all seen from our porch: Eastern Meadowlark, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Phoebe, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Purple Martin, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Scissor Tail Flycatcher, Ruby Throated Hummingbird, Inca Dove, Mourning Dove, American Crow, Black Vulture, Coot, Mockingbird, Cardinal, Common Nighthawk, Roadrunner, House Sparrow, Carolina Chickadee, Cowbird, Starling. We were not able to identify an owl, a hawk and a heron.
The Nature Conservancy Lunch is one midday repast that I rarely miss.
Folks from worlds of business, government and conservation gather in a big room each year to hear about measurable results around the state from this nonpartisan, science-based advocacy group.
The Conservancy’s ace in the hole is its leader, Laura Huffman, one of the city’s best public speakers. This day at the JW Marriott, she talked about how the preservation of Hill Country land is now a model for as far away as Africa; how the future of water in the state depends on conservation, not just new supplies; how the Columbia Bottomlands on the Brazos River are faring; how the Conservancy is building a pair of oyster reefs on the coast; and how the group pieced together land through purchase and, more importantly, conservation easements in the Davis Mountains.
During lunch, I sat between Deb Hastings, natural resources advisor to Texas Lt Gov. Dan Patrick, and Kristin Vassallo, director of philanthropy and operations for the Conservancy. You can bet that our chat was noteworthy on many levels.
The marquee act, however, was National Geographic photographer and adventurer Pete McBride. My newsroom neighbor Pam LeBlanc interviewed him later that afternoon — I look forward to that article — but I can report on McBride’s spellbinding public presentation, which began with his work documenting the adventures of others — such as walking the length of the Amazon River, not a comfortable assignment for a man from the arid West.
Then he moved on to his passion project, documented in his book “The Colorado River: Flowing through Conflict.” McBride had gone back to his childhood home near the source of the western Colorado and followed it by boat, atop a paddle board, on foot and in the air. The images, of course, are breathtaking, but more important are the ideas, including a long segment on the river’s dry delta. He was able to document the area in Mexico before, during and after a “pulse,” when water was briefly released from the upstream dams.
As readers of this column know, a buddy and I recently finished tracing 50 Texas rivers from their sources to their mouths. Nothing compared to the scale or stamina of McBride’s project, but as a friend texted me during lunch: “You must be in heaven.” How right he was.
Last week, author and dear friend Michael MacCambridge invited me to an early evening event at the Stark CenterPhysical Culture & Sport, located inside Royal-Memorial Stadium. He told me that news would be broken at this museum and archives, which I very much want to explore more thoroughly.
I walked in to find a couple hundred people milling around a tasty spread. A good two dozen of them turned out to be coworkers from the American-Statesman. So no scoops for me. Other than firing off a few tweets, I could relax and enjoy the company.
In fact, my colleague from the sports department, Kirk Bohls, quickly and elegantly wrote up the event, including a good number of the laugh lines as well as this two-part news: That the University of Texas has established two awards for sportswriters in the name of the legendary Dan Jenkins, also that the TCU graduate’s archives would land at the Stark Center.
Golf greats Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw were among those who spoke tenderly about Jenkins, but no one was funnier or more timely than the man of the hour. I count myself lucky to have heard him speak just this once.
When I joked to Jim Ritts, former commissioner of the LPGA and current director of the Paramount Theatre, that would I walk out without a scoop, he gave me a hot tip that I immediately took to our managing editor, John Bridges, who stood nearby.
As luck would have it, Ritts’ well-meaning tip was premature. The next day, our paper reported that Manchester United and Manchester City would most definitely not be playing an exhibition match at Royal-Memorial this summer. Good try.
The Angelina was the last of the larger Texas rivers traced during our 10-year program to follow 50 of them from their sources to their mouths, or vice versa. Actually, it was also the last river altogether.
It rises in an area with a lot of history in Rusk County not far from Nacogdoches, winds down into the giant Sam Rayburn Reservoir before wriggling down to join the Neches River at B.A. Steinhagen Lake.
We left civilized Nacogdoches early and found the river at Douglass, a not very wide spot in the road that was the location for several Spanish missions. A little collection of historical markers with their backs to the road gave a detailed history of the Spanish presence in this area.
We picked up the Angelina through some gentle bottomlands that glowed with late fall colors.
But pretty soon we hit the Sam Rayburn Reservoir, a vast lake that we had spied the day before at the mouth of the Attoyac. Once again, we found the perfect spot to view its expanses, an Army Corps of Engineers park laced with pines and brightly colored hardwoods high atop a bluff.
It’s easy to see why this stretch of lake would be a recreational magnet, especially during the summer. But why not in the winter? At every park during this December trip, we were typically the only guests. Couldn’t be a better time for camping, picnicking or boating, as far as we were concerned. The air was comfortably cool and dry, and — more to the point — there were no mosquitos.
Right below the dam, we found a river community that rightly hugs the shores of what must be an ideal stretch for fishing and exploring. The Angelina at this point is broad and slow-moving as it approaches the Neches.
Finally we ended up at B.A. Steinhagen Lake. We’d been here before on our Neches tracing, when a drought left it a meager patch of water. Now it’s full and clear and ready for visitors.
That’s it. We traced 50 Texas rivers in 10 years. We saw a lot of the state that very few people have seen. We took a lot of backroads and saw a lot of back country. The sense of accomplishment is, needless to say, mixed with nostalgia.
The question comes up now: What to do with all these experiences? Book? Digital guide? We honestly don’t know.
For 10 years, it was just about the roads and the rivers.