There aren’t many places more beguiling than the native-plant garden on the fourth floor of Trinity University’s Center for Science and Innovation, itself a captivating structure of brick, limestone, and glass. The open-aired plaza, home to blue grama and bear grasses, Blackfoot daisies, salvias, and bluebonnets, faces southeast to capture the prevailing breeze, a movement of air that can take the heat out of the sky. So it did the other night, ruffling green leaves, red flowers, and white tablecloths.
What drew us to the rooftop on that balmy night was a celebration of Trinity University Press and its embodiment of our collective love of books and the cultural conversations they can spark. Our appreciation of words and the worlds they can create. Our respect for smart ideas and the debates they should engender.
As for me, I was also there because of the way the past set up this particular moment under the stars, a direct connection between then and now, history made manifest in a telephone line.
In 2001, the Ewing Halsell Foundation had provided a magnificent leadership gift to re-launch the Trinity University Press. That summer I was asked to chair the search committee for the new director of the publishing program, and so one hot August day I picked up the phone and called Barbara Ras, then Senior Editor at the University of Georgia Press. A friend had recommended her as a consummate editor, superb poet, and someone with a keen sense for where the publishing industry was heading. She’d know everyone I would need to know to build the candidate pool, he advised.
What he didn’t tell me was that I would be bowled over by Barbara: less than five minutes into our first conversation and I was no longer just describing the position but was pitching the job to her — selling this as an exciting start-up opportunity, promoting the University’s intellectual energy, and touting San Antonio’s manifold virtues. By some sweet luck, we managed to lure her to the Alamo City and this red brick campus, and in 2002 the press was open for business.
That puts it too gently: “kicked-down-the-doors open” might be more apt. Notable writers, poets, and critics — like W.S. Merwin, Rebecca Solnit, and Barry Lopez, Naomi Shihab Nye, Edward Hirsch, and Gary Snyder, Desmond Tutu, Lucia Perillo, and Peter Turchi — were among the literary luminaries eager to publish with the press. Not bad company.
Better still is to see their beautifully produced books, and the invariably eye-popping covers, laid out on display. Working my way along the three book-laden tables at the recent reception, what jumped out was the plenitude of texts devoted to identifying, pondering, and probing the human place in place, sparking this idiosyncratic catalog of some of them:
- The Burning Island
- Hail of Fire
- Home Ground
- Terra Antarctica
- The Last Atoll
- In the Country of Empty Crosses
- The Walk
- Defiant Gardens
- The Plazas of New Mexico
- Land and Light in the American West
- Yosemite in Time
- Moral Ground
- Unchopping a Tree
The last of these, W.S. Merwin’s meticulous recounting of the painstaking process by which to reconstruct a single tree felled in the woods, a poem gracefully illustrated by Liz Ward’s as-precise renderings of the cellular structure of the arboreal, offers a moral challenge: how will we restore what we have cut down, scraped clean, or paved over? How will we respond to Merwin’s daunting, because existential, charge: “Everything is going to have to be put back.”
Step One: read. Read to deepen our environmental literacy and regain our sense of agency, for this knowledge and activism are as crucial to the restoration of this blue planet’s once-teeming biodiversity and as they are to the rebuilding of more resilient, just, and habitable communities.
There is nothing new about the claim that words can change the course of human events. “I cannot live without books,” the author of the Declaration of Independence once asserted, believing them “a necessary for life.” If only we could conjure up Thomas Jefferson, invite him to join us in a certain upper-story garden, where we will have spread out some of the press’ most recent publications — “The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness,” “Flowering Earth,” “The Road of a Naturalist,” and “The Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape” — and then watch him dream up a new-found land.
*Top image: Supporters gather for the inaugural Trinity University Press Circle event on the rooftop of Trinity University’s Center for Science and Innovation. Photo by Burgin Streetman.