A gentleman egret enjoys the pond. Photo by Rohn Bayes.

“I live in the low hills north, looking on downtown and east of where the river runs.”  This description could have been written about my neighborhood in Terrell Heights a couple hundred years ago, but you can’t really see the hills now. They are covered with houses and scored with streets. The houses are close to each other with a small green space between them and maybe a bed of flowers or a vegetable garden as accompaniment. The streets have names that evoke old England, like Greenwich, Bryn Mawr and Devonshire Drive where I live.

My home, or mi ranchito, as I like to think of it, is both a nature preserve and a healing therapy center. Ever since my therapist suggested sticking my hands in the dirt whenever I felt depression coming on, I have been discovering new healing therapies. They’re all around; riding my bike is a major healing therapy, writing, conversation in the cafe, meditation, but I digress.

The lush front porch. Photo by Rohn Bayes.
The lush front porch. Photo by Rohn Bayes.

Every day I patrol and inspect the nature preserve. I interact with the plants, remove some, nurture others. I see how the communities are doing, the plants form their own communities and it’s interesting to see how they arrange themselves. Lantana prefers a corner view over by the rosemary, the sunflowers nestle with the spineless thistles and the skinny vine guy climbs up anybody he can find to reach the sun. Of course I’m semi-retired so I have the time to notice these things. I figured, why wait until I’m too old to do anything, so I try to retire as much as possible now, again I digress.

The front yard. Photo by Rohn Bayes.
The front yard, conplete with milkweed for migrating Monarchs. Photo by Rohn Bayes.

My neighbors have afforded me some dispensation for my creative landscaping. Lawns here tend towards the eclectic with natural stone walls, groves of Texas sunflowers, palm trees and giant agave cacti that cast their spires 20 feet in the air when they’re ready to pollinate.

And of course there are the golf course lawns – trimmed and uniform. They must seem like a desert to the butterflies (no food to eat). I have often wondered why humans like to extirpate everything that was here before they arrived. Of course there are critters that have adapted and still live with us – mockingbirds, egrets, coyotes, raccoons, blue jays, bunnies, some butterflies, toads, bats, doves, squirrels, hawks. I do digress, or maybe that’s the point of it – where I live includes many other species of the biosphere living together in reciprocity.

All up and down Devonshire Drive are people I know and say hi to on contact. This morning I see Patrick Purdy and ask him what he likes about the neighborhood. “It’s cozy,” he said with a smile.

“We don’t have a lot of ridiculous rules here about how to conduct ourselves, and everything works out fine. Lost dogs get found, missing cats get discovered. We have a forum for speech,” Christine Purdy said.

That would include Nextdoor and the Terrell Heights Neighborhood Association. They help organize a picnic in the spring and a Halloween party in the fall and movies in the park. We have a community garden with a common space where you can pick fresh herbs and vegetables. Just yesterday my neighbor’s 14-year-old daughter, Sophia, told me her story of visiting the garden with her friend and eating green tomatoes. It made me laugh. She also helped shoot some of the photos for this article.

Earlier in the spring I hosted some participants of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOFERS), Ann and Jonas from Germany. They were traveling cross country to California working on organic farms along the way. Together, we built some beds and planted radishes, parsley, squash, papaya, tomatoes and carrots. Kale, beets, spinach and wildflowers went in the other bed.

Thriving beets and kale. Photo by Rohn Bayes.
Thriving beets and kale. Photo by Rohn Bayes.

Milkweed for the migrating Monarchs and a Jujube tree for me went in the front yard. It is supposed to mature in two or three years and produce a small sweet fruit. Of course the watercress and dill was already going strong in the bog filter. Now the harvest is starting to come in, a definite healing therapy.

A pool turned pond. Photo by Rohn Bayes.
A pool turned pond. Photo by Rohn Bayes.

My old leaky swimming pool in the backyard has been converted into a fish pond with a bog filter connected to it for growing vegetables and purifying the water (see photos above). The bog filter is filled with pea gravel which is home to billions of bacteria who break down the waste products of the fish which then nourish the plants which in turn release oxygen for the fish. It’s a symbiotic system plus my pool doesn’t leak anymore or at least not as much as before. Seeing how nature creates symbiosis is a healing therapy.

The sunflowers sometimes harbor caterpillars on the underside of their leaves which the mockingbirds feed on. The toads, after the first spring rain, emerge from their hibernation, sing all night and then lay long strings of eggs in the water which hatch into tadpoles which the fish eat.

Come to think of it, my food scraps go into a compost bin that becomes soil for the carrots and parsley which go in my salad. The most pleasant part of my habitation in Terrell Heights is feeling in harmony with nature – definitely a healing therapy.

The groovy nook. Photo by Rohn Bayes.
The groovy nook. Photo by Rohn Bayes.

With a mosquito net and a futon, it’s possible to sleep outside most of the year. Waking up at dawn with the birds singing and the water spilling into the pool is a great way to start the day. My morning affirmations somehow seem more cheery when the birds are singing. And the egret, my gosh, he’s five feet tall and stately as an old gentleman. He comes early in the morning to inspect the fish pond but it is too deep for him to deploy his hunting strategies. The small pools in the groovy nook nearby are shallower and serve as a sushi bar for the raccoons but Gentleman Egret will not go in there. It’s too enclosed for him. He likes to leap up in the air and fly away with a powerful thrust of his wide wings, which he does invariably with the slightest disturbance from under the bedding. I arise ready for the day.

My habitation is also the home of the Backyard Film Festival, going strong after two years. On warm clear nights friends and neighbors gather under the stars to watch a curated collection of shorts with themes like, “Moving Through the World,” “Water,” “Peace is Possible” and “Cree-ay-tiv-atee.” The earliest form of entertainment was sitting around the fire sharing stories, there’s something very human about that. Not only does it create a shared experience and a gathering point but it connects us to our ancient ancestors who watched their own movies in those burning embers.

The Backyard Film Festival. Photo by Rohn Bayes.
Friends and neighbors gather for the Backyard Film Festival. Photo by Steve Young.

The history of this town goes back millennia. No one knows when the first people arrived here and set up camp around the springs. No one knows how they lived but some traditions still remain – the river “walk,” for example, and the custom of peaceful gatherings and communion at the springs. In the modern day form it has become conventions and trade shows downtown. My neighborhood is part of that ancient tradition. I think about that when I take off on my bike, out of the hills, and along Broadway – following the course of the river into the city center. I think, “Wow, what a beautiful place to live.”

*Featured/top image: A gentleman egret enjoys the pond. Photo by Rohn Bayes. 

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Rohn Bayes has been a resident of San Antonio since 1975 and of the Terrell Heights neighborhood since 2003. He is a writer and a filmmaker and operates a small online bookstore called rabbit!!books....