The Where I Live series aims to showcase our diverse city and region by spotlighting its many vibrant neighborhoods. Each week a local resident invites us over and lets us in on what makes their neighborhood special. Have we been to your neighborhood yet? Get in touch to share your story.
Our home in Greater Harmony Hills still smells like it did when my grandparents lived there: traces of the sweet pipe tobacco that my grandpa would sometimes smoke. It’s a smell that brings me closer to the essential memory of their presence, and I love walking through the front door when I’ve been away for a while and finding that the scent is still there.
My family and I moved here in 2014, after my grandpa — a widower since 2009 — moved to New Mexico to live with my cousin. I had always admired the modernist design of this house, built in 1964, with a sunken living room and large windows that look out on the big green backyard.
After living in the artists’ enclave of Marfa, finding ourselves in the suburbs of a large city provided some culture shock for me and my family. But my two sons were happy at their new schools (Basis Shavano and the Block and Dreeben School at the nearby Jewish Community Center), my husband enjoyed perfecting his grilled yakitori skewers in our backyard, and after nine years in the desert, I felt refreshed living under the canopy of the 13 live oak trees that shelter the house.
My grandparents, David and Martha Williams, had a passion for plants, and they brought several sago palms from their yard in Houston with them when they moved here in the mid-1980s, along with shrimp plants and a small kumquat tree. By the time I moved in the kumquat was large and productive, the shrimp plants were bushy, and the sagos in front of the house were so impressive my then 4-year-old son named the largest “King Sago” and cried on the day the gardeners unknowingly butchered King Sago by cutting off his lower leaves.
Sadly, the kumquat tree did not survive the Snowpocalypse of 2021, so we planted a native mulberry tree in its place. My son and I have spent hours expanding the original vegetable garden, planting fruit trees and exploring the drainage ditch beside the house, which is an ecosystem unto itself. During the pandemic this backyard was our haven, giving each family member a little extra space and a connection with nature when we needed it. It inspired a few pandemic projects as well: We now have a flock of backyard chickens with a fenced-in yard, a brick fire circle and a stock tank swimming pool.
The lawns of St. Augustine grass that give our neighborhood an orderly look disguise a surprising amount of diversity and wildness. We’ve identified eight or nine different varieties of fungi, including earth stars and coral fungi. The songs of blue jays, cardinals, finches, sparrows, grackles and hawks (who are endlessly taunted by the blue jays) are continuous. In the early morning, we’ve spotted deer, foxes and coyotes bounding down the ditch. Once a young buck appeared on our front porch, catching the eye of our cat as he looked through the window.
We have fun watching the very fat possum who lives under our deck, whom we call Ralph, snuffling around the property on his nightly rounds. After getting a wildlife camera we confirmed it was raccoons who were feasting out of the compost pile (dubbed by my husband as “the smorgasbord”) next to my garden. Squirrels, snakes, toads, bees, cicadas — the list goes on, and I wonder how many more unseen creatures are out there making a living in our suburban forest. I also worry about their ability to thrive in the midst of lawn-mowing, herbicide-spraying, automobile-loving humanity. A few years ago, the city bulldozed the drainage ditch that runs alongside our house, a tragedy for that fragile ecosystem and for us as well, because the song of the toads has disappeared.
Many of the people in our neighborhood are my grandparents’ contemporaries. I’ve known our next-door neighbor Audrey since I was a kid, and she is like family. Our wide and not very trafficked streets are ideal for walking and biking, and more families with young children are starting to move here, too. Through our mutual love of plants, I met Jeffrey, a master naturalist, and his husband, who have thoughtfully re-wilded their front yard with native trees and shrubs according to Jeffrey’s excellent design. Two doors down lives the lovely and leonine Marie, an aesthetician with whom I share a birthday, and last year our new neighbors and now friends Katch and Rich, accomplished musicians from New York City, moved in — a real gift.
As I wrote this over Passover/Easter weekend, I looked out my bedroom window into a tangled network of brown and green. A week prior, after our live oaks had dropped their leaves, the pollen they produced was so thick you could see it wafting through the air in big, chartreuse shape-shifting clouds.
Our house has many windows placed up high, and every view outdoors is of the bent, dynamic lines created by the leafy branches. The plant material filters the light that comes into the house and colors it gray-green. I imagine the oaks’ vast network of roots supporting us from underground and the intricate, hidden mycorrhizal web that must connect this entire neighborhood, where almost every yard is blessed with one or two old live oaks. I love where I live, in this home where I feel connected to my family roots, old and new friends, and the natural world.
Disclosure: Jennifer Lane is the sister of San Antonio Report Managing Editor Wendy Lane Cook.