San Antonio- Behind the baseball diamonds at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, chainsaws buzz every Saturday morning in a 53-acre nature preserve: Headwaters Sanctuary. Volunteers walk on a dirt road and through dense trees to get to the area they will be tackling that day. Some cut down small Ligustrum at the base of their trunks; others drag abandoned trees in a big heap. The felled trees are then loaded onto a cart to be driven from the shrine and discarded. Saw, slide, repeat.
After three hours, more than 100 tree stumps dot the grounds. For the first time in years, sunlight is streaming through this area of thinned forest and warming the ground. The sanctuary’s only full-time employee, executive director Pamela Ball, rushes between the stumps, spraying them with herbicide so the trees can’t regrow.
At noon, the field looks completely different than it did that morning – when overgrown trees blocked the sunlight – but there is still a long way to go before the sanctuary can be fully restored to its natural state.
Cutting down living trees may seem counter-intuitive to restoration, but it helps protect an area’s biodiversity. The elimination of alien species guarantees the proper functioning of an ecosystem and preserves natural resources such as soil or water. Preserving native species in a given area helps protect it from the effects of climate change and makes it more adaptable.
The Headwaters Sanctuary, owned by a non-profit organization run by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, is nearly overrun with invasive plants, especially Ligustrum trees. The trees are native to South Florida and are harmful to the local Texas bird population. They also deprive native plants of sunlight, soil and water.
“Plants are slowly starting to adapt,” Ball said. “They can’t adapt as quickly as climate change.”
A warming and changing planet makes environments less resilient while facilitating the spread of invasive species. A 2020 study predicted that alien species will increase by 36% by 2050.
Some of the Ligustrum trees were planted in the 19th century to beautify the space. However, much of today’s invasive population took root because neighboring residents used them in their landscaping, and the seeds found their way here. Today, the nature reserve is permanently spared from future development due to the conservation easement it received in 2020. The next step is to spare the sanctuary from its invaders.
Last year, when Texas experienced sub-freezing temperatures, the cold slowed regrowth in the springs. Spring foliage appeared almost two months late, starving wildlife that migrates to southern Texas and depends on the plants for food.
“Our native plants are quite surprisingly resilient” to the weather, said Kelly Lyons, professor of biology and invasive species specialist at Trinity University. “Plants that have been here for hundreds of years are quite well adapted even to these cold snaps.”
But native plants cannot thrive if invasive species choke them out.
Headwaters Sanctuary volunteers show up faithfully twice a week to continue the work of restoring the nature reserve. In areas they have already sawed off, sunlight is streaming through the tree branches and growth can be seen on the forest floor – the first sign that native species can grow again. When they complete the restoration work in 2024 as hoped, “this place is going to be loaded with wildlife,” Ball said.
“We have a commitment to the Earth Care mission, not just on property, but to spread information,” Ball said.
Volunteers “are going to understand what it takes to restore that kind of environment, why it’s valuable, and why decisions that are made in one’s own backyard have implications for us and everywhere else,” she said. .
The Catholic sisters have long advocated on behalf of the Earth. The mission of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word has always revolved around health care and education – as evidenced by the hospitals and schools they established in San Antonio. Now they have moved from healing people to healing the planet.
The Headwaters is home to the beginning of the San Antonio River in the Blue Hole Spring, known for its vibrant blue water that shoots skyward like a geyser. Thousands of years ago, before residential development drained much of the water, indigenous tribes settled along the river. When Spanish explorers surveyed Texas in the 17th century, they settled along the river because of the resources the water provided. The city of San Antonio owes its growth to the river.
Many Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word moved to San Antonio from Galveston in the 1860s because a cholera epidemic crossed the river, sickening the people of San Antonio. The sisters opened the first hospital in the region to care for sick patients.
“The water brought us here and it is healing,” said Sr. Yolanda Tarango, a member of the religious order. “As a congregation, one of our most important ministries is to continue this healing process and not just through the hospital or the health care system. But also the healing of nature.”
For Sr. Sarah Lennon, who helped secure the conservation easement for the sanctuary and served as a missionary for more than 60 years, caring for the Earth is an integral part of her ministry.
“If you don’t have Earth, we don’t have people,” Lennon said.
But for the sisters, restoring the land also means serving the San Antonians. Numerous studies have shown that green spaces in urban areas can improve mental health by reducing stress and providing a setting for connecting with other people. Green spaces also reduce pollution and help protect against floods or droughts.
“The Headwaters draw you to something beyond yourself, away from the rush of the day,” Lennon said. “It’s a whole body cure for people who are tired, tired and live with noise and concrete every day.”
Prior to the pandemic, the sisters held environmental movie nights and workshops on topics such as composting and soil care to educate locals about protecting the planet. They hope to resume these activities soon.
The shrine, tucked away behind the university, does not have its own dedicated parking lot. They recently received a grant to expand one of its entrances to make it more accessible and easier to find. Bexar County also approved the San Antonio River Authority’s 2021 proposal to connect the River Walk to historic missions in the area as well as the Blue Hole and Headwaters Sanctuary. This section of the walk, which will be called Spirit Reach, is expected to take a decade.
But for Tarango and his colleagues, restoring the sanctuary isn’t just about preparing for climate change or improving the quality of life for San Anton residents.
“Sustainability is about treating creation with dignity,” Tarango said. “It’s really nurturing God’s creation. The least we can do is care for, heal and nurture God’s creation.”
“It’s a deeply spiritual endeavor,” Lennon said. “Because it’s preserving the gift that God has given us.”