Riley and I left Southmost Preserve to Las Estrellas Preserve in Starr County, where nuns, peyote, and endangered cactus dance a bizarre thematic dance. We met Patrick Conner, the Nature Conservancy’s South Texas project director, at the gate.
He told us how Las Estrellas improves the Rio Grande’s watershed. Much of South Texas is severely overgrazed, and without groundcover, loose soil flows into the Rio Grande. Not only does the water get dirtier, the channel fills with silt—that means more flooding.
Las Estrellas’ healthy population of grass and understory plants allows scant rainfall to soak into the soil, and keeps the water cleaner by filtering silt out of the reduced runoff. In the same rainstorm, the Conservancy loses less than 500 pounds of soil per acre; overgrazed ranches lose six to eight tons per acre. The rich plant community also nurtures biological diversity by creating habitat and keeping moisture in the ecosystem’s soil. Moist soil keeps the planet cooler. Just standing at the fence line, you can feel how lush Las Estrellas is. The other side is a Dust Bowl reenactment; you don’t even hear birds.
Restoring the land’s health is good for the economy and our quality of life. But for Patrick, “it goes way beyond the monetary.”
“I’ve spent my whole life in nature,” he told us. “When you grow up and live in nature and watch stuff grow, you’re seeing nature in its splendor. And that community becomes part of you. All this stuff is part of me. Now, whether that’s spiritual, I don’t know. There’s no difference really.”
One afternoon, Patrick took us to nearby Chihuahua Woods Preserve. It’s not your typical Nature Conservancy project: the preserve is bounded by colonias—desperately impoverished housing developments that often don’t have basic utilities. “It’s more like a community outreach project,” Patrick says. “If we can get people to take an interest in the preserve, then maybe they’re going to take an interest in organizing to improve their community.”
“Nature should be available for everyone, not just rich people.” Amen, San Patricio. “Everybody needs green space.”
We need life for life’s sake. That’s why Las Estrellas protects an unseen world of organisms—one of the highest density populations of endangered star cactus on the planet. These plants hide and stay hidden: in droughts when the soil cracks away, star cacti sink beneath the ground and vanish, buried by windblown dust and rocks. Flags stuck in the barren dirt mark invisible seedlings reintroduced by the Conservancy.
We poured water over the dirt and it pooled and eddied like the most life-giving mud puddle on earth, like cool Jesus-spit mud-water. The tiny pools soaked into the ground, and a star cactus would appear at the flag’s base, the subtlest little jewel of green life hidden in the bone-dry ground. This is beautiful, seeing that life is quietly hidden all around. Putting your hands on the desert floor is like feeling a baby kicking, arching its back to meet your palm.
How is the master-cactus of subtlety endangered? It’s too subtle. Developers and ranchers don’t realize they’re killing hidden star cactuses when they bulldoze brush. Habitat destruction caused by rapid population growth and urbanization in South Texas is the major star cactus killer.
Star cactus looks a lot like peyote too. And it really looks like peyote if you’re “like, an herbal medicine enthusiast, man” squinting down at a little cactus through mesquite brush, looking for that “wwwhoa, duuuude…” effect you read about in Fear and Loathing. Not gonna get there with non-hallucinogenic star cactus.
Peyote is also harvested legally for ceremonies in the Native American Church. Between legal and illegal harvesting, many star cactuses are mistakenly harvested. That’s why Patrick works with peyoteros, peyote brokers and leaders from the Native American Church to distinguish between the two plants.
After watering cactuses, we left for the Benedictine Monastery of the Good Shepherd, half a mile from the preserve. It’s situated on 115 very remote acres near the Mexican border, land that the Benedictine sisters love and respect. Patrick stays here whenever he comes to Las Estrellas; it’s the only lodging nearby, and the sisters graciously accept modest compensation. We sat around the dinner table with Patrick, talking about grass-fed beef and shamanism. Patrick referenced sutras in a Texas drawl and leather snake chaps. This dude can birth a calf and Tibetan throat-sing in the next breath. People are unfolding mysteries.
The next morning we meditated with the nuns before dawn. We sat in silence and the room filled imperceptibly with blue dawn light, nun’s robes occasionally rustling, jackrabbits grazing outside.
For the sisters, interacting with nature is a spiritual act. “Being one with, and sensing, and communing with even those beautiful branches right out here,” Sister Luella said, “that really is a prayer itself.” She told us how St. Benedict charges us to treat the tools for working the land with deep respect, as if they were vessels of the altar.
“That goes for chainsaws and bulldozers too,” Patrick said. The nuns designed the monastery’s road to avoid cutting down the most ancient trees.
True words from San Patricio Conner, patron saint of cactus in need and freshwater inflows to the Rio Grande.
July 04, 2011
Roving conservation reporter