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Terra Firma: Trinity University Press blog

Film festival screens shorts on environmental conservation and honors locals

by Margy Avery on


On June 13 the Wild and Scenic Film Festival partnered with the San Antonio River Authority for an evening of short films at the Santikos Palladium. This free annual event, now in its fifth year, aims to celebrate activism and raise awareness of SARA’s activities and its impressive portfolio of projects and public parklands.

The filmmakers deftly squeezed a wealth of information about water conservation and parkland preservation into the fourteen films, whose runtimes ranged from three to nineteen minutes.

Through the eyes of bat educator Corky Quirk, of NorCal Bats, The Invisible Mammal managed to cover four types of bats, bat conservation efforts, bats’ vital role in reducing agricultural pesticides, and the devastating impact of white-nose syndrome. (More than 7 million bats have succumbed to this mysterious disease since 2006.)  

The crowd favorite was the (Unofficial) History of the National Parks Part One, a collaborative effort by Ryan Maxey and Parks Project. In just over four minutes, the film takes viewers from the Big Bang through the colonization of the Americas, John Muir’s appreciation of the redwoods, the creation of the National Park Service, and the push-pull of government influence.The takeaways, aside from the ever-present threat of commodification and the importance of the arts in cultivating an awareness and passion for parklands (Ansel Adams, anyone?), is the NPS and parklands’ critical role in providing a space for everyone to enjoy.

The film festival doubles as an opportunity to honor recipients of SARA’s Watershed Wise Awards, which recognize individuals and organizations in Bexar, Wilson, Karnes, and Goliad counties who have helped to raise awareness of watershed issues.

Winners included Concepión Park champion Estela Avery, former executive director of the San Antonio River Foundation; the Hon. Joe Straus, speaker of the Texas House of Representatives; Brenda Justice, a park ranger at Goliad State Park; the City of Kenedy; and the San Antonio Bay Partnership. You can find the full list of honorees on SARA’s site.

Bummed that you missed this opportunity? You can catch the Southern Basin Screening on June 28 at Kenedy City Hall.


Books for the Best Dads

Fathers are underappreciated, or at least that’s what my dad says. And it’s kind of true. It seems like the only time I tell my dad I appreciate him is when he helps me out with something, like plumbing or cooking or car maintenance. When the check engine light comes on, I know who to call, and it’s not ghostbusters. I’m always grateful for him, but I don’t always vocalize it. I don’t know how to vocalize it. 

Father’s Day is a day when we tell our fathers how much they mean to us, for all the little things, for always being there, for all the bad dad jokes (and there’s a lot of those). But words only go so far. When it’s time to show all the fathers in our lives how much they mean to us, a solid place to look for inspiration is the bookshelf. Here are a couple of ideas from Trinity University Press. 

Hometown Texas is filled with photographs and stories that highlight small towns in Texas. The authors, Peter Brown and Joe Holley, collaborated to create Hometown Texas that looks at what makes people who they are and how the landscape changes around them. Hometown Texas aims to show you the unknown parts of Texas. If your father is from Texas, lives in Texas, or is just interested in the Lone Star State, this is the book for him. 

Humans of San Antonio, the newest edition to the TU Press family, showcases the people of San Antonio. Through pictures and quotes, Michael Cirlos captures the essence of San Antonio made by the people who populate it. The emotions captured in these pages will make even the toughest dad get goosebumps.

Is your dad a history buff? Does he enjoy reading about true legends? Exploring the history of a legendary Texas family, Maverick: The American Name That Became A Legend goes back in time to uncover the truth of the Maverick family and the word maverick, tracing its history all the way back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Focusing on Sam Maverick, this book delves into his story as a Texas legend and all the incarnations of maverick that came after. Fathers of all backgrounds can get into this epic, historically true tale.

Whether you dad drinks tequila, strictly water, or something in between, he will enjoy The Spirit of Tequila. The combination of pictures and storytelling will encapture any reader, especially your dad. The history illustrated through photographs and words captures the culture, history, and beauty of tequila. We are all lifelong learners, why not help your father embrace it?

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there!


Trinity Attracts People Who Care

by Emily Wood on

Yesterday I turned in the final draft of my undergraduate career at Trinity. And last night I had a dream that I had another paper that I forgot to finish.

It’s been a busy four years of joining clubs, leaving clubs, taking classes, not finishing readings, turning in first drafts, and procrastinating between short bursts of productivity. There have also been chances to experience idyllic liberal arts university moments, of course—late-night talks with classmates over paper writing, laboring on careful revisions, participating in lively discussions and original research, and seeing amazing speakers like Margaret Atwood and Bernie Sanders.

But now that classes are over and the library is nearly empty, the question of what comes next is increasingly on my mind. Sometimes it’s easy to be cynical about the college experience, especially as an English major who has been asked countless times, “What are you going to do with that?” I wish I had an answer—it’ll be a surprise for me, too.

Stand-up comedian John Mulaney recently released a Netflix special in which he makes fun of his own experience as an English major. “I gave them $120,000 for a degree in a language I already know how to speak,” he says. It’s impossible not to laugh and nod along with the audience. At the same time, I know a department full of English professors ready to fight Mulaney for his jokes and faculty across all departments who will tell me and generations of students to come that there’s no limit to what we can do with our Trinity degree. Plus, the writing skills an English major develops have definitely had an impact on Mulaney’s comedy ability.

Having professors who believe in what they’re doing and in their students’ abilities made all the difference in my Trinity experience. Thanks to their support, I’ve been a peer tutor, done summer research, studied abroad, shared my creative writing, and gotten internships. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to express my gratitude.

The nasty flip side to this amazing network is when you let down the people who believe in you. I signed up to do an English honors thesis in part because I had some vague ideas for a project that really interested me. I had the full support of the English department and the enthusiastic guidance of my professors, but in the end I didn’t complete the project. It was a long year of feeling like I was failing a little more each day. 

My advisers eventually helped me transfer the credits into an independent study, and I was able to use my research in a shorter paper. They never stopped supporting me, and they were proud of what I accomplished, even if it wasn’t on the scale I’d originally planned. The project made this semester my most challenging one, but it was also one of my greatest learning experiences. It has driven home to me that Trinity attracts people who care. They want their students to succeed. 

As an intern at Trinity University Press, one of my tasks was reading manuscripts and making notes of my impressions. Having supervisors who care what their interns think, whether or not it ultimately impacts their publishing decisions, reinforces what Trinity aims to teach us: first, how to think, and second, that our thoughts are worth sharing. 

Through struggle and success, the support of Trinity faculty and staff, of friends and family, including those freshman-year friends I don’t talk to anymore and the people I forget to keep in touch with, has meant so much. Even if some parts of my Trinity experience didn’t turn out the way I expected, I look forward to walking across the stage on Saturday knowing I’ve accomplished things my professors, mentors, family, and I—if I let myself—can be proud of.

Margaret Atwood and Coleen Grissom: A Friendship Forged in Books

by Coleen Grissom on

Margaret Atwood is coming to town! My first reaction right after one of elation and anticipation of the joy she will bring to so many of her readers, as well as to those who’ve never picked up an Atwood work, is that it must be winter in Toronto. I know we think we’ve had a hard winter here—even I have a few photos of quickly melting flakes in my yard—but I think winter there may be a bit different.

Atwood has been to San Antonio and to Trinity University several times. Apparently, she likes the city, Trinity, and the literary arts organization Gemini Ink. Once upon a time she even spent most of a semester here while she was editing the Best American Short Stories of 1989. My clearest memories of that visit are her delivering a lecture in the long gone “science lecture hall” and being a good sport about attending a Texas barbecue someone hosted for her.

As happens all too often on university campuses, there was not an overflow crowd for her lecture, but there were enough bright, curious students to engage her. I recall her recommendation that we return to the days when teachers required some memorization. She talked about World War I prisoners who survived in solitary confinement partly because they had memorized long poems in school and reciting them kept their sanity.

On a dark day for San Antonio enlightenment, in 2006 the superintendent of Judson High School banned Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which had been part of the Advanced Placement English curriculum for a decade. Students worked with their parents and some faculty to convince the school board that the book should be read, and the board overruled the superintendent.

I especially admired the reaction of a Judson senior who said: “If we ban The Handmaid’s Tale for sexual content, why not ban Huckleberry Finn for racism? Why not ban The Crucible for witchcraft? Why not ban The Things They Carried for violence, and why not ban the Bible and argue separation of church and state?”

When Atwood learned of the students’ successful campaign, she returned to San Antonio to offer a series of programs for Gemini Ink and to personally thank the high schoolers who had defended her work. Mind you, this was back in the day when many readers thought the book was a bit blasphemous and even ludicrous, since its events could never occur except in the mind of some weird Canadian. Why do I find myself wishing these folks had been right instead of Atwood’s being merely prescient?

I think it was during this visit that I introduced the great Canadian to chicken fried steak. She was unimpressed, preferring fresh vegetables and fruits. Since I am from East Texas, I found this downright bizarre, but I persevered and brought her to my home to show her the gorgeous Hill Country. Again, she was a good sport, even getting down on her hands and knees to call “kitty, kitty” to an unresponsive Princess Prunella, who had no interest in meeting the woman who had created her perfect name.

Gracious, as is her way, Atwood sent a note thanking me for introducing her to such delights, but she did not select a Canadian version of a Hallmark card. Calling upon her talents as a caricaturist, she drew a card featuring me pursuing ill-behaved poodles. The bubble above my head reads, “The hills are alive with the sound of poodles.” Atwood has many admirable qualities, but when it comes to yapping dogs, subtlety isn’t one of them.

“What’s she like?” people ask when they learn that we’ve kept in touch over the years. Well, she’s patient and semi-gracious when I inform her I’ve named yet another animal companion after her creations—Wilderness Tips became Tippy, and Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut became Nellie.

She’s remarkably witty, even sardonic at times—no surprise there—but I’ve never known her to be cruel. She’s so well read that even though I am an active professor and frenetic reader, I feel like a slug in her presence. (Maybe someday I’ll ask her if she’s ever gotten hooked on Law & Order: SVU or Criminal Minds, but I shudder to imagine what she will think when she hears that I own a couple of televisions and more than occasionally sit in front of them without a book anywhere nearby.)

Atwood’s list of awards and honors is too long for anyone’s blog, but just know that, in addition to receiving the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award, she was invited to contribute the first book to the Future Library project. Her manuscript for Scribbler Moon will be read in a hundred years, if the human race survives.

Her interests and commitments beyond her writing are wide and deep. She operates her office on green policies, and she is an environmental activist and an urgent voice in the climate change debate, as well as the inventor of the “long pen,” the builder of a bird sanctuary on Pelee Island, and a committed supporter of many organizations working to save the planet.

I have so many anecdotes about this generous, brilliant, fascinating person, as well as about her literary gifts—poetry, essays, literary criticism, short stories, novels, graphic novels—but this captures it best: In Rosanna Greenstreet’s 2011 interview with the author in the Guardian, Atwood made a statement that crystallizes why I so admire and adore her.

“How would you like to be remembered?” Greenstreet asked.

“By members of a human race who have managed to avoid annihilating their entire species and can thus still do some reading, and remembering,” Atwood said.

What an honor to be able to welcome her once again to San Antonio. 

Coleen Grissom has taught English courses at Trinity University for five decades. She will be onstage in conversation with Margaret Atwood on March 8 at 7 p.m. at Trinity University in San Antonio. This event is sponsored by Gemini Ink in partnership with Trinity University Press. More information here.The event is free but ticketed, and tickets will be available to the public on February 15 starting at 9 a.m

LA is Burning!

by Char Miller on

La Tuna Canyon. Anaheim Hills. Thomas. Creek. Rye. Skirball. Each of these evocatively named fires has ripped across portions of Southern California since August, consuming tens of thousands of acres and forcing the evacuations of hundreds of thousands of residents. This crazed choreography of flame and people appears mono-directional: as each of these conflagrations—and countless others before them—scream over ridgelines or roar up canyons, panicked homeowners bolt. Flames get us moving.

It is also true, however, that human beings have made these fires in the most fundamental sense: we bear torches. The most obvious of these torchbearers are the arsonists who take advantage of the region’s desiccated and fire-prone landscapes and the intense, wind-driven events known locally as the Santa Anas. Under these conditions—all of which fueled the firestorms of 2017—it does not take much to spark up an inferno.

Once lit, whether by means intentional or accidental, these fires gain their people-scattering force as a direct consequence of human geography, of how and where we live across the Southland. For more than a century, Los Angeles has pressed out from its central core. Late 19th Century streetcars and then automobiles facilitated this oft-white flight, a dispersal that accelerated after the 1920s, and then took off in the postwar era. Sprawl and the City of Angels became synonymous.

Less well understood, but just as synonymous, is the close relationship between fire and sprawl. Between the 1950s and 1970s, new wealthy subdivisions in the Hollywood Hills, Beverly Hills, and Bel Air experienced devastating fires. Subsequent waves of exurban migration into such valleys as the San Fernando, San Gabriel, and Pomona, Simi and Santa Clarita, have flowed along the ever-expanding grid of freeways and their interlocking subdivisions (with the requisite billboard exhortation at each exit: “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now!”), and produced the same smoke-filled results.

The pattern has continued apace, even as the region has become increasingly dense. LA is now the second densest city in the United States, a crowding that has led those seeking affordable housing to move out to an ever-expanding periphery. Some of these peripheral developments, which city halls, planning boards, and zoning commissions have dutifully sanctioned, were among those recently engulfed in flames.

In early September, the La Tuna Canyon fire burned more than 7000 acres in the Verdugo Mountains in northeastern Los Angeles, after jumping the 210 freeway and consuming a number of cul-de-sac neighborhoods. A month later, the Anaheim Hills blaze scorched 8000 acres in Orange County, including dozens of homes that crowded up into this high ground. In early December, four fires erupted under extreme Santa Ana conditions. The Thomas (230,500 acres and counting); Creek (15,000+); Rye (7,000); and the smaller Skirball (475 acres) may vary widely in terms of size, but thy are similar in this respect: they propelled massive evacuations, burned countless homes and other structures, and their toxic fumes smeared the sky.

Their physical siting is as revelatory. Each burned in and around vital highways, disrupting daily life. The Skirball hugged the 405, arguably the nation’s busiest freeway. The Creek was framed to its south by the 210 (and also hopped it at one point). The Rye flowed along the Interstate 5 and Highway 126 corridor, while the runaway Thomas fire not only swerved close to the 126 it also torched both sides of the 33 and the 101. Every highway we grade. Every yard of concrete we pour. Every construction permit we pull. Every house we build. Every mile we drive—each act, individually and collectively, helps set the stage for Los Angeles’ most-fiery dramas.

Yet the season for this show used to be a lot shorter, concentrated in the late summer and fall. Now fires can (and do) explode in any month, thanks to another anthropogenic driver: Climate Change. It is responsible in good measure for the bone-dry conditions accompanying seven years of drought, a process that is powering fires in Southern California from January to December. This 12-month cycle will hold true across the rest of the 21st Century, too, with temperatures rising and precipitation decreasing. When these climatic conditions collide with the built landscape, as they did this month, the consequences will be every bit as unsettling and disastrous.

Photo by Erin Donalson: Thomas Fire Burns Mountains in Ventura County via istock.

Char Miller, the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, has written extensively about wildfire in Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream (2016) and On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest (2013), both from Trinity University Press. His most recent op-ed on the subject, “What the Trump administration doesn’t understand about wildfires,” appeared in the Los Angeles Times in October.