American Indians in Texas wikiup with rock ovens at Land Heritage Institute. Photo by Ansen Seale.
American Indians in Texas wikiup with rock ovens at Land Heritage Institute. Photo by Ansen Seale.

As Special Projects Director for San Antonio’s Land Heritage Institute (LHI) – 1,200 acres of open space along the Medina River on San Antonio’s far Southside which is under development as a land museum – I recently reignited interest in the long-dormant South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Eco-Cultural Tourism Committee.

What, you may ask, is a land museum? And, for that matter, what is eco-cultural tourism? Well, we’re trying to figure those things out.

“Eco” here refers to ecological, but it could simultaneously refer to how eco-cultural tourism can be a great economic generator. Eco-cultural tourism on San Antonio’s Southside refers to the many nature-based parks and historical enclaves that were only glimmers in folks’ eyes during the early 2000s when the South Chamber first convened this committee under then-President Cindy Taylor.

Taylor is now executive director of the Hot Wells Conservancy, a County-stoked initiative to awaken spirits at the Hot Wells Hotel and Spa ruins – only a dream one decade ago. Other then-distant dreams were the World Heritage Site designation of the Spanish Colonial Missions and the completion of the river’s Mission Reach.

Moving the Leeper House from The McNay Art Museum’s campus to the bird-filled wastelands of Mitchell Lake sounded outrageous at the time, but making it the visitor’s center for a full-fledged Audubon-endorsed entity was visionary indeed. Toyota had not yet moved in as LHI’s neighbor, the Medina River Natural Area was unmapped, and the abandoned CPS power plant on Mission Road had not yet been stripped of its utility trappings, an EPIcenter as yet unthought-on.

The Medina River at Land Heritage Institute. Photo by Ansen Seale.
The Medina River at Land Heritage Institute.  Photo by Ansen Seale.

A lot has happened since, including LHI better defining what land museum might mean. LHI boasts more than 20 miles of hike, bike, and bridle trails through South Texas brush and hardwood forest, and a more than two mile stretch of pristine riparian habitat.

These caminos naturales connect heritage campuses reflecting our histories: the Richard Beene Archaeological Site yields evidence of continual human habitation for 10,000 years representing lives of peoples here prior to the Missions; a portion of the property was once part of a Spanish land grant to the last Spanish governor of Tejas; the Camino Real passed through a part, as did the Great Chisholm Cattle Trails.

What is now the Presnall-Watson Homestead Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was settled by frontier families from the American South who brought their slaves of African descent followed by a prosperous farm family who ranched the property for nearly a century.

The stories these sectors tell are cross-cultural, deeply historical, and ethnobotanical. “Exhibits” envisioned around these stories will be as alive, and perhaps as unwieldy, as our main “collection,” a 50-plus head herd of purebred Longhorn cattle.

Purebred onghorn cattle at Land Heritage Institute. Photo by Ansen Seale.
Purebred onghorn cattle at Land Heritage Institute.  Photo by Ansen Seale.

The arts also have played a key role in LHI’s development. Ansen Seale’s 2009 The Corn Crib is an exquisite chapel-like photographic homage to the primordial grain housed in a remote, turn-of-the-20th-century, stacked-stone structure once used to store the same.

Nancy Cavender Garcia et al’s Diverse Cultures/One Land (2010) is a photomontage series depicting LHI’s historical stages strung sequentially along the Chaparral Trail Burma-Shave style. Pon la Mesa/Set the Table, Jose Chapa’s 2015 educational rejupado installation, bilingually confronts proclivities toward diabetes and obesity.

An LHI Climate Change Artist Commission has been granted to sound artist Luz María Sánchez.

We collectively call these trail-accessed contemporary art installations Museo Paseo. All installations trace their steps back to the sustainable trailhead/orientation center/exploratorium, which was built in and around a WWII-era Quonset hut once used by Ford Motors to test tractors, that we call the STREAM Center — stretching the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) acronym to include Reading/Writing, Environment, Arts, and Media.

LHI has long been interested in the confluence of art and science. We’ve conducted biennial LHI Art-Sci Symposia with national speakers since 2009. Our 2015 confab was scaled back to a single presentation by the director of Texas Tech University’s Center for Climatology, Katharine Hayhoe, who was profiled on the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously.

Katherine stemmed the decision to downsize that symposium and focus on the realities of climate change from my participation in Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps Training earlier that year in Cedar Rapids, just before the Iowa primaries.

Gore made the case, as he did a decade ago in the award-winning film An Inconvenient Truth, that climate change is here, but there is hope. Humans can change its full effect, but only if they make changes now. And he provided directions for such change – personally and ever so generously.

During the training, he spent a full day discussing climate change, dissecting his own slide show, teaching an audience of newly-identifying climate leaders how to present his up-to-the-minute images, which became accessible to all following the training.

The Climate Reality Leadership Training is a first-class activist boot camp. It is happening again August 16-18 in Houston. The training is free but you must apply – the deadline has been extended to July 20.

To apply, click here.

LHI is co-hosting a smaller art-sci event, a public discussion with Robert Ferry of the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) with the South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and AIA San Antonio. This isn’t ‘land art’ the way The Corn Crib is.

LAGI encourages the design of land art generators, works of public art that capture energy from nature and cleanly convert it into energy, pay back their environmental footprint and construction cost by producing kilowatt-hours of energy that offset existing uses, create a unique experience for the public, and stimulate an increase in visitors to the site (power plants as tourist attractions). They create places for leisure and learning, do not negatively impact the environment, and increase the livability of communities.

LAGI has conducted biennial international design competitions for land art generators alternating between the U.S. and other countries such as Dubai in 2010, and cities such as New York City in 2012, Copenhagen in 2014, and Santa Monica in 2016. They are currently starting work on events in Glasgow.

The talk is free and open to the public at San Antonio’s Center for Architecture, located at 1344 S. Flores St., on July 19 at 7:30 p.m. It is made possible with support from the Texas Commission on the Arts and is intended for artists, architects, landscape architects, and other creatives including activists, environmentalists, engineers, and scientists.

Before this public event, Ferry will meet with the South Chamber’s Eco-Cultural Tourism Committee.

Ferry’s conversation at the second meeting of the newly re-launched Eco-Cultural Tourism Committee could be definitional. Leaders of such Southside sites as LHI, Mitchell Lake Audubon, the Missions, Hot Wells, the Mission Reach, Medina River Natural Area, the USAF Airman Heritage Museum, and the Texas Air Museum all aspire to the same things land art generators aim to inspire: Unique and stimulating public experiences for leisure and learning that contribute to the clean livability of our communities.

Sara Beesley, director of the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, said at the first meeting that the Committee provides an opportunity for our organizations to think internally about how we want to represent ourselves collectively – including our serving as models in our communities for best management practices in clean, green living and sustainability.

You still may not know what a land museum or what eco-cultural tourism is, but that’s okay. We’re working on it.

Top image: American Indians in Texas wikiup with rock ovens at Land Heritage Institute.  Photo by Ansen Seale.

Related Stories:

Brackenridge Park Plan Headed to Council Committee

World Heritage Symposium Addresses Land Use Around Missions

San Antonio River South Channel Gets a Reboot

History, Culture, Celebration to Collide at Inaugural World Heritage Festival

Contributor Penelope Boyer.

Penelope Boyer

Penelope Boyer is an artist, author, activist and environmentalist who serves as special projects director for the Land Heritage Institute in San Antonio. She holds a Ph.D from EGS | European Graduate...