INTERVIEWEE: Susan Lynch (SL)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT)
DATE: February 18, 2006
LOCATION: Uvalde, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Jennifer Gumpertz and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2355 and 2356
Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Boldfaced numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera background noise, unrelated to the interview content.
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re in Uvalde, Texas. And it’s February 21st, 2006. And we’re here with Susan Lynch, who’s actually from Rio Frio, but has been nice to join us here in Uvalde to do this interview about her life and career and interests in conservation. She’s had a varied career from being a scientist, to microbiologist, on to being a reporter and editor, to running a vineyard and apple orchard, and getting involved in forming a group called Friends of the Frio, and also serving on the board of the Nueces River Authority. So lots of interesting things to talk about. I wanted to take the time right now to thank you for spending some time with us. I thought we might start with your childhood, and if there was a instance that you can recall that might have signaled your interest in the outdoors or sustainability or science perhaps?
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SL: Probably because my dad was a cowboy, and I would go—and he was always—he was also a surveyor later in his life, and an engineer. And he would take me out sometimes. I—you know, I went on a couple hunting trips with him. I didn’t shoot anything, but I just walked around with him. And I went to a girls’ camp every summer. And I loved it. And I went, you know, from the time I was, like, about ten until I was in
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college. I would go—finally—I would start out with, like, two weeks when I was a little kid, and then I would go all summer when I was older. And then when I was at university, I would—I was a counselor there. It was a Campfire Girls camp. And you know, I guess that experience turned me on. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we—you know, on reflection, one of the things that I remember the most is that we lived in these screened-in cabins. And every night when we went to sleep, before we went to sleep, I—
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I believe the—the counselor—I can’t remember exactly, but I believe we had a prayer. And then we would, you know, try to get quiet and go to sleep. But because I’m a birder now, I remember that one of the nightjar birds, Chuck-will’s-widow, was just booming all around us. And now I hardly ever hear a Chuck-will’s-widow. And if I do, I just—I have a silent “yea,” you know. I feel really good that I’m hearing this because they’re very vulnerable, because they’d stay on the ground a lot. And, you know of course I see stuff like that, sometimes too, on the highway at night. I’ll—they’ll fly up on the side of the road. But I think those are the major two influences because I grew up in a city.
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And—but we had chances to go out. And—and one of my girlfriend’s mother was a birder, and she wrote a birding column for the Fort Worth Star Telegram. And we went out with her a lot, but we didn’t pay any attention to the birding. I mean we were out there playing tag. But somehow or—somehow this stuff probably rubs off on you, you know, kind of an osmosis kind of a thing. I guess that’s the major thing. And I just like out—the outdoors. I like sports.
DT: You told us a little bit about your childhood, and I was hoping that you might be able to bring us up to the next chapter. You went to college and studied bacteriology. And then soon after that, you got a job as a microbiologist.
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DT: Can you talk about that?
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SL: Okay. After—while I was still at university, I worked for a couple of the grad students there. And—and kind of—I shudder to think what I was working with at the time because one of those grad students was working with Anthrax. You know, the—the biological warfare germ. And all I did though was real—you n—it—it’s—you know, kind of washing up his glassware was about all I did. I didn’t really work with the organism. And then after I graduated, I worked for a guy at—a professor at TCU [Texas Christian University] in Fort Worth. And he was working on cholera. So I helped him, you know, plate his cholera
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colonies. And then—then I got a job at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. And I was—I was just a microbiolog—mi—microbiological tech—technician. And at that time, you know, the man I worked for, the professor I worked for, all of these professors were also teaching professors. And when they weren’t in class teaching, they were in
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their labs, you know, doing their research work. So—excuse me. I worked—oh, gosh, we were working with some immune response fluorescents, and I had to work with a lot of lab animals. And I didn’t like that very much. And I also helped some—some other researchers with some rabies research, and they kept bats. And so every time I had to go up to the animal room—they had a floor just dedicated to the lab animals. You know, the mice, the dogs, there were monkeys, whatever. And it just almost made me sick to go up there with him to see—some of the material that we used for plating organisms was we—we used sheep blood. And he would have to go up there with this giant syringe and draw
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sheep from a blood—draw blood from a sheep, I’m sorry. And it—I don’t know, it just—it just kind of—I just didn’t think I continu—could continue working like that. And also, research work is very isolating. It’s too quiet for me. And so—and not sociable enough. So I decided to change. So I just kind of went into the backdoor of journalism. I went back to school. I went back to UT. I had some journalism courses. And I started out by editing a county medical journal because of my technical background. And then I just kind of kept on creeping forward into regular—regular articles, general articles, general subjects.
DT: And your writing career, editing career I guess soon took you to England?
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SL: Yeah. I mean there was a—a marriage. And travel is one of my loves. And the reason that I love to travel, and to go birding when I travel, is that my husband was stationed in Germany. And I could continue—I was a civil servant while he was in the military, and I could continue my editing. That was the only job I could find with the military, was in some kind of editing position. So I just kept going with it. And we were able to travel a long way on—af—after he got out and before we went back to the U.S. We, I don’t know, had a nine month trip through Europe and the Middle East, which was
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fantastic. But when we got back, I think—I was divorced when we went back, because I think that we had just occupied too little a space for too long a time because we were traveling in a Land Rover, and camping and—but it was wonderful experience. But I think I got off the track on that. Go back to the original question.
DT: Well, I’m just curious about your work being an editor at the Travis County Medical Society, and then eventually you segued into being an editor abroad.
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DT: I was mistaken. I thought it was in England, but was it also in Germany?
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SL: Well, the Germany thing came first. Then after that we went back to the states. I was in public relations for a museum for a while. And that got to be a little bit boring, and I already had a taste for being overseas and traveling. So just kind of as a lark I—a friend of a friend got me a job in Greece on the island of Corfu, where I was supposed to do some public relations, but I ended up working the switchboard. It was crazy. And I had to—you know, you have to learn a few basic words in Greek. I didn’t learn too many. But it was a beautiful, beautiful place. And then I went to England because I
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couldn’t just keep on, you know, being a hotel receptionist on Corfu. And—so I—I went to England and just looked around for the work that I could get. And I was very lucky to get a job with this, as I say, Third World publication called African Development. And it was really interesting because it was—it was a side street off of Fleet Street, and Fleet Street is the street where the biggest newspapers are published in England. And living there was just such an eye opener for me, because not only did I—was I—I was exposed to different nationalities, a lot of different nationalities, a lot of different races, a lot of different religions, and mainly a lot of different philosophies, and political beliefs. And it
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was—that was a big learning experience for me, especially learning, you know, about the rest of the world. And I was able to travel to Africa two or three times on assignments. And it was—I—I kind of branched off a little bit too. I did a little bit of work for some other publications and got to go to the World Food Conference. And one of the women’s—one of the World Women’s Conference—I can’t remember exactly the name of that one, but it was pretty interesting. I mean this was a conference where there was Betty Friedan, and most of the—not most, but a lot of the original women’s lib types. That was in Romania, which was in itself very interesting. And…
DT: Can you tell us what the Women’s Congress did, was there any sort of discussion about empowering women so they could take control of how many children they might have, or if they would have children? Maybe you can comment on that.
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SL: It was—yes. I remember one—there was like—like a little fair along with the official conference. And you can not imagine the variety of exhibits that were there. I mean one of the funniest incidents was a guy that I was talking to just walking down the hall, we had seen each other in passing, and so we stopped to talk to each other. And I said, well, what kind of display are you here—d—or do you have here? Oh, he said, well, I’m here to—to show people condoms. I said, oh, okay. He had this card with him,
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and it said something like his name, and it said—it didn’t say—it was something like “Have protection, will travel.” Or “Have sexual protection, will travel.” Something like that. But, oh, God, that was so long ago, it’s hard to remember exactly.
DT: You said you also went to World Food meetings.
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SL: A World Food Conference. Yeah.
DT: Was there much talk about the difference between third world and first world food productions, and…
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SL: Oh, yeah.
DT: …the green revolution?
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SL: At that time, and I can’t remember exactly what year this was. This—as (?)—I was in England in the late ‘70s. But at that time the word l—the food supply of the whole world was very low. And all the politicians were getting very alarmed about that. And these conferences are sponsored by the U.N. And I can’t—it was probably under the sponsorship of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. And one of the things that I remember that I thought was such a—a—so ironic about the whole thing was before we went to the conference the man who was in charge of the conference, I believe he was
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from Italy, invited us to a press lunch. All of the people in London who were involved with Third World publications went to the lunch. Here we were talking about starvation, and famine, and low food supply, and what we were going to, you know, do at this conference, and we were sitting around with a table in a, you know, not a four star restaurant, but it might have been two or three star, with crystal and china, you know,
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settings, and, you know, a wonderful lunch. And I thought this is crazy, you know, for these, oh, shall I call them bureaucrats—yeah—to be wining and dining themselves and getting fat on these press lunches, and me too, while—and then we go talk about the problems in a—in this food conference. But what in the hell is going to get done? It caused, you now, it—it did, I’m sure, created some waves, and probably got some of the poor countries some more money from the rich countries. But—I guess you could say that part of my education there was understanding that the rich get richer and the poor get
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poorer. And, well, I don’t know exactly what else to say about that, but it was quite an education for me. You can imagine coming from Fort Worth, Texas.
DT: While you were working for African Development, did you also write articles about these issues, whether it was empowerment of women, or food and famine, or other topics maybe related to sustainability?
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SL: Oh, yeah. I mean after I met Schumacher.
DT: Why don’t you talk about your meeting with Schumacher.
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SL: Okay. E.F. Schumacher had an institute. He called it the Institute of Alternative Technology. And he had already written Small is Beautiful. And someone had loaned me that book, and I thought it was pretty darn impressive. And I went to interview him and did an article about him. And that kind of led to visiting some of the farms or houses in England and Wales where people were trying different kinds of energy, growing their own food, trying to be self sufficient. And one of the farms that I visited frequently was run by a journalist, and he was the one I mentioned before called—they—they called him the Guru of Self-Sufficiency. But I got kind of tickled at the whole setup because he
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was—he had young kids coming in and learning how to grow cabbages, and they were paying him to do that. I thought that that was, you know, really very clever of him, but I wonder if the kids couldn’t learn how to grow cabbages on their own someplace. But it—you know, it was the idea of the thing. And of course, there was a lot of camaraderie involved. These weren’t—you know, these weren’t like communes, these were actually real people trying to live without a whole lot of outside expenses and resources. And I hope it doesn’t matter if I get a little bit off color sometimes. Does it?
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SL: We were driving up to Wales one time, and we had a hitchhiker. And he was also studying a whole lot of these things. And he was studying compost toilets. And he knew—he had studied everything from the electric disposal to, you know, just regular composting where everything’s just dropped down into a pile, and they’re—you know,
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and (?) mixed up and decompose. Anyway, he’d studied practically every—and he just filled our ears with all of the experiences he’d had studying people’s toilets. And I said—looked at my friend, and I said, that’s marvelous, isn’t it? And the guy said, you know, I probably know more about shit than anybody in England. I still laugh about that. But anyway—but we had a lot of fun, you know, visiting these places. And I did get some articles out of it. And the only thing was, it was not realistic. If—if the Guru of Self-Sufficiency had a problem with—you know, he didn’t have enough seeds, or he
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needed a loaf of bread because somebody that day didn’t make the bread, then they could run down, you know, five or six miles and buy what they needed. And so a friend of my—a friend of mine suggested that we go on vacation to France. He knew, you know, had a friend who was living in a community there. So we drove forever it seemed, and it was in the French Alps near a—a town called Briancon. And it—it’s in a national park. So you have to go to the foot of the mountain and go up a foot trail to get to the village. And it’s kind of like a protected village because it is in the park. Well, I fell in love with
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the place. It was just dramatically beautiful. And there was this terraced group of houses on one side of the mountain, old chalets that people had restored some—to some extent. Facing that was this mountain torrent that kind of crashed down over boulders. And then on the other side there were terraced hay fields. And between the terraces and the torrent there were these banks of plants that had never been touched. And in the springtime, those were just full of—of flowers. Just beautiful native flowers. And course in the
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hay fields too, before we cut the hay, there was, you know, really gorgeous vegetation. But anyway, I decided to live there. And it was just a wonderful experience. But the whole idea was it—their philosophy was to be peasant artisans. And of course farmers, because you had to grow your food. You—the ideal was you were a peasant in the growing season, and you were an artisan in the winter when you couldn’t do anything else. And then you used you art work or your crafts to sell, because one of the people who live there was an artist, and he had transformed the old schoolhouse there into a
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studio. So he would display our stuff. I learned how to weave, and—my weaving wasn’t that great, but at least it was interesting enough for people to buy some of it, and it enabled me to buy plants the next spring. I lived there for five years. And it was tough living because we had no electricity. And when I look back, I just wonder how I endured it, because I was already in my late thirties. And it was a di—it was a com—it was a community, but it was more like—you know what co-housing is? Yeah. It was more like a co-housing situation. Everybody had their own little place, or their space, or their
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little room above a—you know, in a chalet, or they had their whole chalet. And the only way that we cooperated was we had horses in common, cows in common, and some fields in common. And the hayfields were com—communal. And the only problem with living that way is, I’m sure that most people who have tried any kind of communal living will tell you, if everybody in the group is not responsible, and kind of shoulders their load, it really doesn’t work. And I was one of the older people. There were a couple of
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people older than I was in the—in the group. And then most of them were much younger than we were. And they were kind of busy, you know, playing their music and—and smoking dope. We weren’t because I was too afraid of—that the gen—and there were mountain police called the “mountain gendarmes.” And they would come up and—and inspect everything pretty thoroughly, because they knew that there were young people moving back and forth all the time. But our gardens were beautiful. And I never did subscribe to the, you know, the kind of flaky new-age stuff. We were really practical
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about what we did, because we knew that we had to plant it, nourish it, harvest it, and get it in the root cellar so that we’d have enough to live on in the—in the winter. And then…
DT: Maybe you could tell us what the cycles for a year might be from planting to harvest?
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SL: Okay. Well, you know, it’s—it’s—it was snowed in most of the winter, starting with about November would the—the first snow would come. So then you’re snowed in, you’re reading, you’re doing your crafts, milking the cow if the cow’s still up there, cleaning the stable, taking care of the chickens if chickens were still there. You had to have, you know, some protection for them in the winter, because the snow drifts would be pretty deep. This was on a mountainside. Anyway, I—I think our altitude was about—it wasn’t really that high, but it was high enough. It was about seventeen hundred
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meters I think. And then, after the snowmelt, then we could travel down to other places, using our money that we’d earned with crafts. And of course we cheated. I mean I had a savings account. And my partner had a, you know, a little nest egg of his own. So if we really, really needed cash urgently, we could get it. But it wasn’t quick, because it would have to come through a French ma—you know, American dollars coming to a French bank, and we’d have to go miles to get it. But we’d go to the markets down in another—in towns and lower valleys. And of course the French markets are beautiful. And that
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was a lot of fun because it’s like an old time market. You know, you’re seeing beautiful vegetables, you’re seeing fantastic olive oil, all kinds of homemade stuff, people playing music sometimes, and then there would be a little enclosure with, you know, like cattle sales going on, or people showing some horses. There’d be great big baskets full of chickens. There’d be some people there sometimes with songbirds. It was just a lot of fun to—to go down the first time in the spring to, you know, get your plants and your supplies. And then if we had any building projects that we had to do, because these
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chalets were always undergoing some kind of restoration—they were rock buildings that had kind of tumbled down—we had to arrange for a helicopter br—to bring those big supplies up there. And of course, that was a big deal. You know, just having—finding a place for the helicopter. And—and we used horses to transport all our stuff up there because there was no way to drive there. It—cars just couldn’t get up there. And—one time we brought a h—we brought a piano, I mean a baby grand. No—wait a minute. I
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wasn’t a baby grand, but it was a big upright piano, on the back of our stallion. And there were—you know, it was sitting flat on his back. And we had ropes on each side, and somebody leading him. And then there were four people on each one of these ropes trying to balance this piano. And here’s a mountain torrent over here, and rocks over there. It was crazy. But—okay, the seasons. Then of course we—we would plant and get the ground ready. And—and of course their—the season is so short when you are growing in a cold area, so we only had, like, May—May, June, July, August, part of
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September. It wasn’t too short. But we had to do all of it in one growing season. And we used the—the horses to plow, and also to harvest our potatoes, which by the way, are the best potatoes in the world. I think that’s why people buy Colorado potatoes, because altitude evidently makes them really good. And so—and then one of the things, when the grasses got high enough in the hayfield, and got dry enough so that we could cut, we went out—this—this—this was our—our hayfield was for our animals obviously. And we had scythes that we used. I mean we actually went out there and hand scythed the
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hay, and loaded it in huge burlap squares called bourlah. And these were modified from Moroccan custom. A lot of these people had traveled a lot, and had kind of brought in some of these other customs, and so you’d just tie up the corners and load it on top of a horse, and the horse would take it over to the village and dump it in somebody’s barn. And one of the fun things that I learned to d—or I—I learned about there was the use of herbs and native plants, because we had an—just beautiful mushrooms. I learned how to,
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you know, identify mushrooms. We a—we went out when it was wet, and we would turn rocks over and get escargot, and—you know, really big. I mean these snails were like this sometimes. And there were—I can’t remember the name of it. There were just all kinds of medicinal herbs, or you—herbs that you could use for tea, or the as they say in French. And—there were—you know, there were a lot of things that were used medicinally too. And we used them that way. Let’s see. So there was the planting, the watering. We had a—our water source was ca—was just gravity flow from the—from snowmelt that came down from the top of the mountain. And in front of our chalet, it
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poured out of a—just a lead pipe into a huge trough, a big wooden hand-carved trough. And we would hook somehow—I can’t remember how my partner did this, but we had had the hoses hooked up so that we could water the gardens if we had to. But there was pretty good rain. And so then, after the—you know, as the things get harvested, then we would bring them in in—in big baskets.
DT: What were you harvesting besides potatoes?
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SL: Okay. Potatoes. We had carrots, squash, cabbage, onions, most of kind of the basic things. I can’t remember—we didn’t grow any of the—we couldn’t grow any of the hot weather stuff. Some people tried berries. We didn’t have any berries. We did try tomatoes in—in a plastic enclosure. And—oh, yeah. For protein, we had to have protein.
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So we would bring big hundred kilo bags of kind of basic stuff up. We’d have to buy those, and we’d bring them up with the horses. We had, you know, flour just in grains, which we would grind ourselves and make bread. And we had like—things like soy beans. We had lentils. We had a lot of lentils. And—oh, yeah. We did grow—oh, I can’t think of the name, what they call it right now. Well, I’ll go—go to anoth—I’ll go to another thing. Most of the basic stuff we could grow there, the plants. And our—things like coffee we’d have to buy. We couldn’t grow coffee. All the flour, the sugar, the—the beans, you know, the grains for the bread. And we bought different things. We’d try to
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vary things. We’d have wheat. We tried rye. Oh, some people grew rye. They had a little field for rye. And so another thing that we did to make money was this—and being in a national park, there were tourists coming up there. And when they—you know, in the summertime. But then in the winter they came to go ski touring. And a lot of times we could go with them. And I knew how to ski. We would ski down the villi—we would ski from chalet to chalet in the wintertime. And then to get down to our parking area, we’d have to ski down another slope. And—or we’d have to take a path so that we
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would avoid avalanche runs. But in the summertime the tourists would come by, and we would—that would give us a chance to sell our crafts. And at one point I was running a—what they call a bouvette, which is like a snack bar. And I would make, you know, sandwiches with whole bread. And the cheese. We did make cheese too.
DT: I was wondering if you processed any beer, or cheese, or yogurt?
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SL: Yeah. I—I did. Yeah.
DT: Bottled wine maybe?
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SL: With our milk I made—I made yogurt and just—w—we ate sometimes just regular clabber because we liked it. And—and—and we did make cheese. And the artists had a cheese cabinet, you know, with a screened front to keep flies out. So I would just take my sh—after I’d pressed the cheeses, I’d just take them up to him to age. And our cheeses were pretty good. I mean we didn’t have the—the correct bacteria, or the correct organism to make any particular variety. But the organisms from the air can make cheese. I mean you don’t really need to have something that you buy in a shop. It
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just—it’s just a natural process. And anyway, so we could sell that to the tourists and kind of earn a little bit of money. In the wintertime we ran a refuge for skiers and hikers. And we just kept—it was in a big barn that was part of the property. And the chalets were interesting, because in the lower part was the stable for the animals, and the upper part was where people lived because of the heat rising. We rented a chalet over our stable for a little bit, and that brought in a little bit of money. And then—in the refuge,
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we cooked a lot of times for the people, and we’d, you know, use our own natural materials to do that. I don’t know. I s—look back and wonder how in the hell we did it, but we did it basically with our potatoes. And leeks. I forgot to mention leeks.
DT: What did you use for fuel? Heating and cooking?
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SL: Wood stove. Yeah. The forest opposite the village would—would be marked by a ra—a park ranger. And he would mark the trees for us that could be cut. And the park people would come in and cut a certain number of trees, and then we would go up later after they had s—you know, aged a little bit and cut them into pieces. And we rolled these down the hill to the path where we then loaded them onto the horses, and the horses took them to the village. And so that was a big part of the cookery schedules. You had to, you know, chop your wood. I did not do that. Thank goodness my partner did the
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wood chopping. But if I had to, I could get out there. We had a big—you know, a big block of—like—it was a tree stump that we used. And—yeah. The heat. And we also had a heat—in the refuge we had wood stoves. And somehow we managed to house and—and feed some—those skiers. But ski touring is quite different from downhill skiing. And what you do is you—it was wonderful because you could—you know, you could walk. You’re—you’re just walking on skis un—until you—you’re going downhill. You—you put these skins on the bottom of your skis. And the grain of the skin moves
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against the snow so you c—you know, walking up, get up to the top, take your skins off, put them in your backpack, and you ski down. So you can go up and down, up and down, you know, for hours. And we had several guides who came there. And one of them wrote an—an article about us, you know, kind of like these—these mountain people back in the—back in the woods running their refuge. And it was a lot of fun. We had—we—you know, the—the people I met while I was there probably were some of the most sophisticated people, except in, of course living in London, too. But a lot of these people who came to visit, as my partner used to say, well, we live in an isolated place, but at
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least the world comes to us. And it was true. There were a lot of friends who kept coming to visit. They would, you know, make return visits. And they’d bring stuff to us. You know, like one guy was a baker and he’d bring a big sack load of croissants, and you know, chocolate pan, and stuff like that. And then there was another guy who knew a butcher, so he’d bring sausages and stuff up there to us. So we could kind of enjoy some different stuff every now and then. But this is kind—the kind of life that I knew that I couldn’t live permanently. It—it was just too—just too tough. The winters too hard.
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You know, you’re at the mercy of the weather for her—for your growing season. We never had a—a disastrous growing season. But I didn’t think I could work like that. That’s—it’s hard, physical labor. And of course that’s all you—that’s all you have time to do during the growing season is work. Then in the winter, of course, you—you don’t have to work at all, except milking the cow and, you know, doing some routine chores.
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I—I managed to do some writing while I was there. And—and some work for my—I did a—an article that was translated into French for a horse magazine, because we took a big trip one autumn and took our horses down—I think we—I think we covered like three hundred kilometers—down through the mountains to their winter pasture. There was another community that kept our horses for us in the winter. So this is quite an adventurous situation for me. But it just wasn’t something I could keep on in the future because I knew there—you know, I couldn’t do this when I was sixty, or probably
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wouldn’t be able to do it even when I was fifty. But great learning experience. And that’s carried over into my life to a certain extent. When I came back here, I was in culture shock.
DT: Well, what did you learn about self-sufficiency, or of communal living, or on the flipside, this sort of market economy or consumerism? You mentioned you were in culture shock. I’m wondering what your memory is of returning to the states.
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SL: Well, I think it’s possible, and I still believe that sustainable living is possible. Yeah. And you know, I’m not living that way myself except in very small ways, now. I mean I’m—I live a comfortable life. I have an electric kitchen. And you know, I’m not living that way now, except that there still are influences. I wouldn’t be interested in any environmental work I did if it hadn’t been for that experiences, and what I did in—what I wrote about in London. And—something slipped my mind. I couldn’t (?).
DT: It seems like there are maybe strains here. One would be what you read about. You know, the Schumacher’s book, The Small is Beautiful. Another might be what you wrote about in looking at third world countries. And then a third might be actually visiting and living in these communities in the first world that were trying to be small scale and self-sufficient. I wonder what sort of messages you got from each of those three experiences.
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SL: Well, I think I got the message from visiting third world countries that they were living pretty basic lives. But in many ways, those lives are very healthy. I mean we got tons of information from our nutritionists here about how wonderful the diet is in Ghana perhaps, because you know, with their use of, you know, natural food, and they use—I can’t think of the name of the potato that they use. Well, let’s have another example. Mexico, you know, because they’re eating protein. They eat beans. They make their bread out of corn, or wheat. Now sometimes that may be over-refined, but—and then
00:43:07 – 2355
they—they use a lot of vegetables. We don’t see that in TexMex, but we do in the interior of Mexico. And they have a lot of fruits. They eat a lot of fruits. Have good beer. We didn’t—oh, we did try—we did try making some wine. That was one of my first tasks. We went down—we couldn’t grow very much fruit, so we went down to farmers in the valley below us, and we would just pick up—they would just give us their
00:43:40 – 2355
falls, their—you know, stuff that fallen to the ground. So we’d haul these things up like—we’d have apples and pears and whatever we could get. And sometimes nuts, like walnuts we had sometimes. Anyway, we tried to make liqueur out of the pears, but it was pretty tedious process, and we got about two bottles out of it. It was really good liqueur, but it was—you know, and other people tried to make it. We had a plant there that was wild rhubarb. And people—and it was very good. It’s just an—the—as a—a something to eat for dessert with sugar and cream on it. Of course, we had plenty of cream. And—I
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can’t remember. Oh, yeah. Some of the younger kids were, you know, just getting plastic buckets and they would try making booze out of any of the fruits. We had a l—a little library in one of the chalets, which was an—any kind of publication about how to do something, you know, how to make—how to make wine and liquor from natural foods, how to make bread from natural grains. You know, all of the “How To” books. Not all of them, but a lot of them. And we—you know, we used that stuff a lot because we were just kind of feeling our way to a certain extent. I was lucky because my partner
00:45:18 – 2355
had already lived there for several years. And he—he knew, almost to this fraction of a centimeter, how much you could do, and how little—or how—how much you could do, how little you could do, what was the best way to do it, that kind of thing.
DT: And did his experience come from this one community? Or was he learning from the Farm in Tennessee? Or from some other place?
00:45:46 – 2355
SL: No, he was—he was learning just by being there, and he had—he had kind of dropped out. He was an engineer, and he’d dropped out from his very strict upbringing. And he was from Luxemburg, and—and he had traveled quite a bit in Africa himself, so we had that in common. And—what—what’s unrealistic about these communities is that most of the people who came there were educated. Not Ph.D. type maybe, but they were—and they had something to fall back on. We didn’t really have to be peasants. We didn’t have to live like that if want—we didn’t want to. And I’m an example. I mean I
00:46:35 – 2355
knew I could not live like that. The people who actually did live like that lived really a more comfortable life than we did. They were the—the original residents in this community, or the—and they were shepherds. And at one time they lived there all year long. But then they got to the point where it was so cold in this—well, in the winter that they would just bring—they would live in a l—valley home further down at a lower altitude, and then they would bring their sheep up for pasture in the summer. And as a result, there were some little squabbles, like the—the sheep men against their—you
00:47:13 – 2355
know, the cow men, and the—because we had our cows running wild, and they had their sheep going wild, you know. We didn’t have very many—the only boundaries there were the natural boundaries of cliffs and—and mountain torrents that no one could cross. And a bridge, which could be blocked off to keep the stock in. But, yeah, we had a few fights with the locals. It was—it was a—another—and I’m—you know, we go through this in a—every small community. It’s the newcomers against the old-timers.
DT: You seem to have fond memories of this, but then at the same time, seem to have some feeling that it’s Utopian or not quite practical. I’m curious what sort of message you bring back from that for living in the more conventional kind of society and lifestyle?
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SL: You know, how—how do I adapt that to my conventional life now?
DT: Yeah. (?).
00:48:15 – 2355
SL: Well, maybe I’m doing my part with my environmental work. And one of the things that you learn living like that is not to waste stuff. So I don’t waste very much. I recycle, and I try not to use any more stuff than I have to use every now and then, because my husband—my—I’m—he’s deceased, but when he was alive, he certainly didn’t want to live with just the basics. He—he liked comfort. And he—you know, he liked gadgets and stuff like that. So yeah, I had to compromise. And I’m not—yeah, I—I guess I am a little bit divided about living a totally self-sufficient life. I don’t think it’s really possible. For one thing, you don’t want to isolate yourself. But I think that—I—you know, that there are a lot of people trying to do this. I mean there’s this whole movement called “voluntary simplicity.” Have you heard about that? Yeah.
DT: Why don’t you explain.
00:49:24 – 2355
SL: Well, as far as I know, it’s—it’s people trying to live with just the basics. And maybe growing their own food. Using more energy efficient homes and cars. Or maybe not even using cars at all. Maybe using bicycle if they can manage that with their routine and their work. Just trying to get life down to the basics. And I think that that’s one of the big lessons that you learn in a commun—living in a self-sufficient community, is that you can be so happy, even though you’re poor. If—if you have the stimulation of people who like ideas, who read. If you have music. It would be terribly boring, I think, to be self sufficient without the stimulation of other people.
DT: So are you suggesting…
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SL: And people who can think.
DT: Are you suggesting that this “voluntary simplicity” is as much about sustainability and low impact on the earth as it is about stripping away distractions from art and music, and sort of higher pursuits? Of socializing with interesting people?
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SL: Mmm, I don’t—I—I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question, really.
DT: Well, I’m trying to pin down what you, and maybe others see as important about self-sufficiency and simplicity in your living. Is it just the idea that there’s less impact on the earth, less air pollution, water pollution, consumption of resources? Or is it also that somehow your life is richer in a cultural sense if you don’t have all the distractions of the gadgets? I’m just suggesting (?).
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SL: The first—the first thing is—is—that you mentioned is the reason I’m interested in it. But also, I hadn’t really thought about that it—you know, this—just—but that is terribly distracting to have gadgets. There are so many things that we don’t need. Like I don’t use a lot of fancy kitchen gadgets because the best tool in the kitchen is a really good knife. And also—I mean I’m living with a lot of clutter around me right now. And so I’m having to go back and think, I don’t need this clutter. And I can get rid of a lot of this stuff and I’ll never even miss it. And that is great. And I—that’s probably what the voluntary simplicity movement does, is try to get everything down to the stuff that really
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counts, what makes you happy. You know, you got enough food to eat, you got shelter, and hopefully some interesting friends, may—which are kind of like a support group. You can eat healthy without spending the earth, by either growing your own, or just buying really good organic food. It’s more expensive to buy really good organ—I mean like if you go to Whole Foods or someplace like that, you’re going to be spending a lot more money on it. But if you’re not buying too much—I mean if you’re not buying a
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sack of Tostitos along with it, you know, you can save money on—on that other junk and—and really buy good stuff. It’s like it—it all kind of boils down to what makes you happy, what you really need, and you can live a very good quality of life without a whole lot of s—material stuff. Now, I’m living with a lot of material stuff. But now I’m—my mind is switched ba—because after I got back here—let’s see, I’ve been here—I’ve lived in Frio Canyon tw—twenty-one years now. And I’m—I’ve become totally American again. I mean culture shock is gone. And—but still those—those ideas are still with me,
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and I can still use those ideas. I c—I tell people if—if I lost everything I had, I would still be able to live okay. I wouldn’t be able to, you know, indulge myself, and I wouldn’t be able to go into Starbucks and have a coffee as much as I wanted to. But there would be ways for me to live well. I would know how to do that. Is all this going into the ar…
DT: When we were last talking, you were telling me about this community that you lived in in the French Alps. And after being there for about five years, eventually you wended your way back to Texas, and went to live on the upper Frio River near Garner in a little town called Rio Frio.
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DT: And opened something called Frio Valley Vineyards and Nursery where you were growing grapes and apples. And I was curious if you could tell us a little bit about that experience.
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SL: Okay. Well, I—first I came to this ar—to this area because I had relatives in Kerrville. And we wanted to—we wanted to move my parents there because they were having medical problems and needed more care. And I needed to get back in touch with my family because I’d been kind of a rolling stone for so many years. And I realized I needed to put down some roots, and that I hadn’t been available to my mother and dad. But anyway, so we—you know, a new chapter opens. And before I married, I edited the local newspaper called the Real County American. That was another culture shock too.
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After working in London, to work on a newspaper here was kind of funny. It was a weekly. And so in the process of doing that, you know, I met a lot of people in town. And I would go down to have lunch. I’d take a sack lunch down to the Frio and eat beside the river. And it just, you know, appealed to me because it’s such a beautiful, clear, clean looking river. And at that time they hadn’t messed around too much with the crossing there. And then I met my husband. And he had the orchard and vineyard. And I was just damn lucky to meet him because he had been around the block, so to speak, and was an interesting guy. And he had been really ill, so after he got—started getting better he wanted to do something with this s—this piece of land. And so he started the vineyard, and then later he—he hired a guy from Afghanistan who was a refugee from the Russian invasion, and he was a educated horticulturist, so we—everything got going
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with this guy. And after we married, I was out there working in the vineyard too. And it was really appealing to me, because I was back outside. And I had not worked with grapes, and I had not worked w—much with fruit. And we were trying to do it, you know, commercially. But we were really too small to be commercial. But we had one of the first trellised apple orchards in the Hill Country. We’re very proud of that. But we had a big problem though with—with the diseases and stuff like that. We had a—an organism in the soil called “root rot.” They call it root rot every place but in New
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Mexico, and there they call it “Texas root rot.” Anyway, the—the work was great. And my husband loved to cook. And he couldn’t work physically because of all the surgeries he’d had. And he was still kind of recovering from some of that stuff. So I went out and I worked with—we did—we hired wetbacks. And one of them would come every year. He was great. He was a—he was a real steady guy. And he knew everything, and he knew where everything was. So that was really the backbone of the thing. I mean we had other people working out there, but when it came to pruning and deciding what to plant, and some of the spraying, and stuff like that, I did stuff like that. But it was
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interesting to me to—to see what kind of native plants we have here, because I’d already been introduced to the native plants over there. Now I thought, well, here’s my chance to learn some of the native plants in Texas. And in the grape family, there are tons of native grapes in Texas. And so we had a whole quarter of our vineyard set aside for just growing natives, and trying them out as root stocks for fancier varieties. And we had some gorgeous—like we had some French hybrids, we had some nice red wine grapes. I can’t remember what—what variety that was. Isn’t that awful?
DT: What was the…
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SL: Because I love wine. Anyway, we—you know, we did well for a while until the root rot took over. And also, the immigration law came along which prevented us from hiring people from Mexico. And we—we did have some people there after we—we knew we could get papers for them, and there were a couple of guys who worked for us. But it was all kind of coming to a halt because it was so expensive. And my husband was a businessman, and he liked to—he liked to create new businesses, and we didn’t need to throw money into a vineyard if he wanted to keep doing that, if he wanted to keep in his—doing his business stuff. And…
DT: I’m interested that your dad was in the cattle business. And then (?)…
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SL: Well, he was very minor cowboy.
DT: But, you know, you were in the sort of traditional Texas culture of raising cattle, and then you marry a man who is trying to introduce something that’s probably quite new to Texas. You’re growing grapes, making wine, trellising these apples. Did you get an idea of…
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SL: Well, he was a very innovative guy. The only problem was that he was so innovative that he was willing to try a whole lot of new stuff, and he would kind of be able to think ahead, and what might be good, and it’d be interesting. But he was not good at operations. So you know, establish the company, and then get somebody else to operate it. So in a—you know, in a way I was kind of the operator of our orchard and vin—oh, we had a nursery, too. We grew nursery fruit trees. And we had a greenhouse where we were trying—we—we actually had a—a partnership with a guy in Uvalde to grow native plants in our greenhouse. And one of our—the only thing that really worked
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really well was we—we had some wild oranges that we sold to people in the valley for their orange trees as root stocks. And that greenhouse experiment didn’t work. I mean I was not good at greenhouse growing. I’m really not g—good at growing, period. But I just like to be outdoors.
[End of Reel 2355]
DT: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what it was like to start a commercial native plant nursery and business back in the mid ‘80s when most conventional nurseries, both wholesale and retail, were offering oriental, non-native, exotic plants for sale. Why did you decide to go this other route?
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SL: Well, we—through our connection with the Texas A&M Research Center here, they had a really good plant guy here who was an expert at propagation. And he had worked with a local man, and he had gotten the local man interested in native plants, although he had a lot of exotics too. And so we knew that we could—we knew from the grape business that natural grapes make great root stocks, although you still need to experiment with them, and it takes a lot of years to know which ones are the best. But there are other things, like the oranges I grew. But then we thought why not just
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cooperate here and see what we can do to supply big bunches of plants and—and make a little money that way? And perhaps do some other plants, too, just for local sale. And you know, I did try a few other plants that people could use in their kitchen gardens and stuff like that. But again, it just wasn’t—it just wasn’t on because we didn’t have enough help to do it, and we weren’t big enough to really make any money with it. So—but I think native plants are great. I mean I have planted my own yard with natives, except for the grass I’ve got on the lawn. And for one thing, I think they’re great because, as I say, I’m lazy. They don’t require a lot of work, they look attractive, birds and butterflies like them, and bees like them, and I’m trying to attract birds to my property. So in addition to putting feeders and things up, then I’ve got those plants there that they can use. And a lot of them are hum—good for humming birds, some of them with berries are good for
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cardinals and orioles. And it’s—it’s just—it’s—and it—you know, ha—you don’t have to water these things. But the reason they’re not catching on as well as they should in cities is because people insist on having lawns. And I’ve heard theories proposed about this, or reasons that we’re all—most—a lot of us come from British stock, or some other European country where the village green was very, you know, in the—the commons behind the village, you know, was kind of like a tradition. And a lot of people just love lawns. They don’t want—they want them trimmed and neat, and you know. But now
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we’re getting to the point where there’s tons of material about native plants. I mean Texas Parks and Wildlife has done a wonderful job with that. You know, you can call them up and get all kinds of stuff about native plants, and how to grow them, and what looks good with what, and—but people in cities s—are catching on a little bit, but I whish developers would catch on. I’m really mad at developers, and realtors, and—and architects because they don’t use them. I mean they scrape off the stuff that’s there, and then they put back something else. They’ll put native plants back. I mean they’ll put mountain l—I mean in San Antonio there’s tons of office buildings with mountain laurel
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and, you know, a lot of sage, salvia is a native plant. There’s tons of varieties of it. But somehow it hasn’t really caught on. I mean I think people have to see the beautiful designs that can be made, the beautiful landscaping that can be done with them. And there’s a lot of material out there for people. They just—I don’t know. Sometimes I think you have to just knock people in the head and say why work with all this other
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stuff, you know. Just plant a—plant a sage and let it grow. You don’t have to water it very often. Yeah, well, you have to prune them every now and then, but that’s really the reason, just because they draw—and they’re good for, you know, insects and birds and stuff. So—I—I’m also—that’s one of my things with people on the river. I’m hoping that the River Author—I hate to get—jump onto that, but the—I hope the River Authority can get together some kind of a booklet for just informing people in a simple way, that if they just keep their river bank natural, that it is so beneficial to the river and how healthy
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it is, and all the wildlife around, and the trees, and that they don’t have to make their urban landscape at—you know, just let it be there. And I’ve tried to do that in many ways. I mean I wrote a newsletter for years, The Friends of The Frio, and I kept on putting things in there about, you know, don’t mess up your river bank. And—but it just—people will say, well, there’s snakes in that grass. And I said, well, they’re probably going to be non-poisonous snakes. I mean I—I’ve got tons of wild stuff on my river bank, and I’ve never seen a—well, I should say—shouldn’t say that I have seen
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some snakes, but very, very few. And—and I just want to clear it out so I can see the river. Okay. I’ve even gotten out of my car when I see somebody new in the area after they put a house up, and I see them out there with their little chainsaw, you know, clearing off the brush. And they leave—they leave ev—they leave the big cypress trees, which is a characteristic of the Frio River. Huge, big cypress trees. They’ll leave those. They’ll leave any, you know, oak trees, they’ll leave, maybe, sycamores. But all the
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brush, it’ll be mowed down. Then there will be grass planted down to the river’s edge. Well, that’s not going to stop any flooding. It’s really bad for the river. I mean the—whatever’s in the river needs that stuff, you know, to shelter in. It, you know, provides shade for fish. Anyway, they need to—to put out some information about this, and they need to—you—well—I don’t—I don’t want to get on the developer thing. It’s—I’m real hot about that.
DT: Well, let’s get onto the Frio thing. You sort of segued from native plants to protection of the vegetation along the banks of the Frio. I understand that back in 1988 you and others founded something called Friends of the Frio. And you had a number of concerns about trash in the river, and dredging of the river, and clearing the river banks, like you mentioned, and logging of some of the bottom land cypress, and subdividing of the ranches that you touched on just a moment ago. Can you talk about each of those issues, and how those problems came about? What you tried to do to address them?
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SL: Well, I can’t talk about every one of those items because we didn’t really address some of those things. But mainly what we started doing was a river cleanup. That’s mainly what it does. And that’s held every September, the first—well, the Saturday after Labor Day. And that’s kind of like, you know, consciousness-raising to keep litter out. I mean we—we sent a—a questionnaire out to people when we first started Friends of the Frio to ask them what their main concerns were. And I think it was like litter in the river,
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trash, septic tanks, too many septic tanks on the river. Trespass was another thing because tourism exac—you know, kind of emphasizes all of those things. I mean the more tourists that come in. Of course the population up there just grows immensely in the summertime when the floaters come. And so the river cleanup, we—we knew we could get that together. That was the first project we had. And that has kept on over the years. Every year they have that river cleanup. And then we started doing some education stuff for kids, because we figured that—that that would be the best way to
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reach local people, because a lot of local people trash the river too. I mean it’s not just tourists, it’s sometimes they don’t know what they’re doing. So we thought if we could get some conservation materials to local school kids. And we did that in Leakey and Uvalde. Uvalde has, oh, I guess about six or seven schools in its system. Leakey just has one. And then we did some Earth Day projects with those two school systems. And also we included Sabinal in that, too. And we had some ambitious ideas because there were—there are so many things that need to be addressed on rivers. But people don’t
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respond to that multiple—in that—let’s see—let’s see, multi-attack. They want to focus on one thing. So that’s about all they can—if you’re a vo—or if—if you’re a volunteer, that’s all you have time for, and that’s all you can really kind of get people to respond to. So the river cleanup was kind of a natural. Then we went onto the education stuff. And we did a limited amount of advocacy stuff. I mean—I shouldn’t call it advocacy. There would be water permits that would come up, and we tried to monitor those. And…
DT: Permits for diversion (?)?
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SL: Diversion of water.
DT: Can you give us an example?
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SL: Well, yeah. Concan wanted to put in a water supply, and it would be classified as a municipal water supply. And they have priority over just personal water supply. And we didn’t feel like that was very good, plus the fact that we weren’t very trusting of the guy that wanted to put it together. And so we opposed that. We opposed a water permit that the HEB Camp wanted to have to—for soccer fields. Well, come on, you know. They’ve got all—they have a lot of facilities at their camp and they don’t need extra water for soccer fields. So we tried to—and that I think they had to alter—yeah, they did
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have to alter their permits to less water used. And the Concan thing was—was deni—and the permit application was denied. And…
DT: Were there any permit applications for export outside of the Frio watershed?
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SL: You know, you mentioned that in your letter. And I—truthfully, I do not know about water exports. I have not heard people talk about thit—about that. But I know that there is som—I’ve heard people express fear about it. That you know, just anybody can come and buy—a water right is like a—is like mineral rights. You know, anybody can come and buy your water right, your water permit right—your water right permit. And I don’t know how much of that is going on. When the ed—you know, when we had the big—several years back there was a lot of, you know, argument about what to do with the
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Edwards Aquifer, and how to keep it recharged. And, you know, San Antonio couldn’t get its act together. They would build stuff over the recharge zone. They did some really stupid things. They didn’t have very good leadership. And—but I—truthfully, I do not know about the export of water, and whether it’s a problem.
DT: What about the issues of dredging in the Frio?
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SL: That’s terrible. You know, because everybody dredges their swimming hole.
DT: Oh, is that what happens?
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SL: Yeah. And also, people try to divert the river without, you know, getting a permit, which you’re supposed to do. And so yeah, in a limited way I guess we were kind of like, you know, people that would—what do you call people who tell about other people doing bad things? Bell ringers? No.
DT: Whistle blowers.
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SL: Whistle blowers. There you go. Whistle blowers. Yeah. And it—in some instances, you now, we would—we would be in that situation because—and—but neighbors, I mean people would call me and they would say, Mr. Jones next door is trying to move a boulder in the way of my part of the river so he can divert the river over to his side of the river. And I said, what do I do? And I’d say, well, I—Friends of the Frio doesn’t have any regulatory ability. But here, you can call such and such at TNRCC [Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission] in Austin. And poor guy, you know, would have to go through the TNRCC bureaucracy
00:15:16 – 2356
to find the right guy. But we tried to do that for people. We tried to get a little—kind of like a directory together of who you can call if somebody is doing bad stuff to the river. And that’s the problem with river protection, because so many agencies have jurisdiction over surface water. It’s just crazy. You know, you got to call Texas Parks and Wildlife for one thing. You’ve got have—call TCEQ [Texas Commission for Environmental Quality] for another problem. You might have to call the Corps of Engineers for a dam. I mean it’s—there’s just all kinds of agencies involved. And a lot of people can just do what the hell they want to do, because there isn’t anybody out there watching them. Or maybe the local guy who is in charge of
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giving permits for dredging just kind of, you know, turns his shou—turns his shoulder and says, mmm, that’s okay, it’s just a swimming hole. You don’t really need to call Austin. Local officials can be—they—they can block protection.
DT: And I guess one of the agencies that would be involved would be the Nueces River Authority. And you served on the board for a number of years. Can you talk about some of the issues that ya’ll got involved with the authority?
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SL: Well, I was on it for six years, and it was a huge board. It was like twenty-one members. And we came—and the river basin is enormous. It covers like all or parts of twenty-two counties. And it was kind of divided into the upper basin and the lower basin because the lower basin really—its—its emphasis is on Corpus Christi and the Gulf—Gulf waters, and you know, most of the water needs of Corpus Christi. And so one of our big projects was issuing—oh, gosh, I guess it was almost a hundred and twenty doll—a hundred and twenty million dollars in water supply bonds to finance a pipeline
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from Lake Texana to Corpus. And that took us several years because in those boards, the executive director of the Nueces Authority actually does the work of that agency, and I respect him enormously, because he has to deal with so many issues. And he has to do all the gut—and all the nitty gritty of getting all the papers together, and you know, explaining everything to the board members. We go to a meeting, and all—you know,
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what we did was we approved the signing of contracts for construction. We listened to the bidding, you know, for doing that construction. We listened to the problem—we listened to the attorney that they used about the problems of liability, that kind of thing. We listened to the people and decided on whether to use an—you know, a—wh—which—which contractors to use. And a lot of that work on the board is administrative. And it was a good experience for me because I got to see some pretty impressive board members. You know, they came from all different professions. The—you know, there
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were attorneys, there were tax people, there were teachers, just regular citizens. I was—I think I was the only one there that was kind of environmental—quote. And so it was a good mix of people. And I think that they—they worked really well together. And they—you know, they questioned a lot of stuff, a lot of—especially if we had to spend money. And the—they issue bonds because the River Authority, it cannot raise taxes. It doesn’t levy any taxes. It gets its funds from contracts it does for other or—organizations. Ano—another thing that happened there was we deny—we—we were
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able to issue some bonds for American Smelting, which is down near Corpus. I can’t remember which stream they’re on—for them to upgrade their equipment so they wouldn’t be polluting. They had to, you know, put money in it too. But it was a pretty expensive deal. And then also, what else—there was a big wastewater plant that wanted to come in two miles from Choke Canyon, Choke Canyon Lake and Dam. And so we were instrumental in blocking that. And I guess one of the ongoing things that we did was to get involved in the Clean Rivers Program. And the Clean Rivers Program has been going on since ‘91.
DT: What does that involve?
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SL: It’s—it came out of Senate Bill—Texas Senate Bill 818. And what it does is it’s to monitor—to set up monitor sites all throughout Texas on—on different rivers and stream segments. And I was…
DT: Is that water quality?
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SL: For water quality, yeah. And you know, they—they would put out a—a big huge book about this thick, you know, for assessment, and you know, what they had found in various parts of the—along—on various segments of the river. I did not keep up that much with what was happening in the—happening in the lower basin. But since we were contracted, you know—N—Nueces River Authority was under contract to carry that out in its basin along with the Environmental Quality people. And there was a team called the TMDL team, which I won’t even try to explain. There were…
DT: Total Maximum Daily Load?
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SL: Yes. You know that. Can you explain that to me? No, I know what it is, I just don’t know how they do it. But anyway, some of this stuff was already—I was already familiar with, because in Friends of the Frio, we did our own monitoring work. And we did some coliform monitoring. We did a Texas Watch Program for a couple of years.
DT: Did you see any problems with sewage plants that might have been tied in with the coliform?
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SL: We had high counts, but we—we really kind of concluded that it was because the—either the river was too low and too warm, or runoff, non-point source pollution had maybe raised the levels. Ha—sometimes animals can do that. We never really came across a septic pipe that was sticking out, you know, with affluent coming out of it. We never did see anything like that. And pretty well kind of concluded that the river was in good shape. Now, in the CRP work, which started in ‘91, the river—there was no
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problem on the river in ‘91. Now, in 2005, there is some oxygen problems at two of the stations which are up—one of them is right below Garner State Park, and the other one is at Concan.
DT: And that’s related to sewage outfall?
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SL: It could be. Or it could be—I’m not—they’ve tested it for years. But the last report I read, it said that it was an a—it was a problem in—within one hundred—wait a minute—within twenty-five miles of Concan, which I suppose means upriver of Concan and down river of Concan. Now I’m not real up to date on those—on that testing. I mean I haven’t—I’ve been kind of occupied with other things. But that shows you that—I mean compared to other rivers in the state though that Texas—when TNRCC that we call “train wreck,” when they were still under that name, they almost laughed when we
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would call them and say, oh, there’s a problem because our coliform count is high. And the guy who helped us was great. And he’d say, well, we’ll come and have a look at it, but you know, Susan, that the Frio River is probably the cleanest river in the state. Actually they’re probably—as—aside from the dissolved oxygen, which is low, and that’s bad, it’s probably pretty good. But I still worry about it because of the clearing and too many people drawing water out of the river. And so I’ll never stop worrying about it. I’ll never stop talking to people who are clearing the river bank.
DT: Let me ask you about a couple things that I’ve heard of. Maybe you can correct me, or fill me in. One is that I think Lake Texana, which you mentioned earlier, was one of the first reservoirs to go online after the requirements for fresh water releases within I think two hundred miles of the coast. And I’m curious if that pipeline that ya’ll provided bonds for at the Nueces River Authority had some conditions placed on its construction and operation.
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SL: Oh, yeah. Big environmental impact study. And we—you know, we were advised about that every meeting we went to. And there were a lot of questions. And they had to do the right thing. I mean and they’re going through people’s property, and some of that property was—you know what the Welder Wildlife Wel—Refuge is?
DT: Near Sinton?
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SL: Yeah. They had to go through there, and they had to work very carefully with them. And—and yeah, other pro—other properties. They had to restore, you know, the ground that was disturbed. And I think that they did a pretty good job of avoiding, you know, destroying any huge acreage of vegetation, natural vegetation. It was a big project. But it supplies about one third of the Corpus region’s water. It’s a, you know, it supplies a lot of water to them. And they were—they were having water problems, and one of the things that we s—we looked at in the River Authority was a project to desalinate sea water. But it was too expensive. It’s too expensive to do. We—they…
DT: Was there much concern about what to do with the brine once you’ve desalinated the water?
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SL: That was brought up, but you know, in truth it was never really discussed that thoroughly. I mean, yeah. Probably it was discussed, but it was—it was not ever thought of as a project that could be done, and so, you know, we didn’t really go into it in real depth when we found out what the cost would be. But those flows from Choke Canyon down to Lake Corpus Christi, and then those flows, they’re very carefully regulated. And that was some of the things that occupied our meetings, was how to best facilitate those flows. I mean the—I guess you could say the River Authority is mostly in business to supply water, or to facilitate the supply of water. But—although they do some, you
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know, environmental things too. But I enjoyed work—you know, being on the committee, and I was very impressed by the fellow board members. But it’s just board meetings or any committee meetings anymore just not my cup of tea.
DT: One of the other things that I heard the Nueces River Authority, at least the staff, one of the employees here, got pretty heavily involved with trying to restrict car travel in the river bed. Can you tell us anything about that effort?
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SL: Well, that was—after I got off of—yeah. Skye is—she has really done a whole lot with public outreach and education. She is the one who’s really reaching a whole lot of school kids with a model of the watershed because really, people need to be—I mean their—their brains need to switch over to a watershed concept. You know, that everything that falls—that comes down from the top of the mountain is going to affect you. But so far, I don’t think the general public is, you know, very water—watershed
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minded. But that’s her whole concept. And it’s really good. She’s really very good with this. And she’s trying to go further out. And she’s the one who kind of started the ball roll—rolling for the bill that came out of the legislature that was in the—2004 S—I think it was Senate Bill 315. I’m not sure. Anyway, there was a huge effort behind that because in the—there is a steering committee for the Clean Rivers Program, and I’m on that. But some of the people who serve on that committee live on the Nueces River, and they don’t—they were the ones who first, you know, blew the whistle on these off-road
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vehicles destroying river beds and river banks. And some of the Nue—and some of the residents on the Nueces, you know, were having problems too with trespass, and people, you know, running across the river beds and leaving trash, stuff like that. But it opened up this big can of worms because there were clubs for off-roading, and they would go to the Nueces where there are many, many areas where you can just drive into the river. You can just get off the highway, go down a path, and you can get right into the river. There’s nothing to bar your access. And they were having rallies. Have you all heard anything about this?
DT: No. Explain it.
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SL: Anyway, this has been a problem in other parts of—of the country. It’s—you know, it’s just called off-roading. And there—at one time there were groups of a hundred or more vehicles running in the Frio River. And they—we even got into—kind of contests, like who could—who could climb over the boulders. And as a result, they were leaving car parts in there. They were running over habitation. They were running over fish nests. They were killing, you know, river organisms. And they were also destroying stuff along the river banks. They were destroying the habitat. And so Skye
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started going down and looking at all these places with some of the residents there. And they formed a group called Stewards of the Nueces. And that was a very, very powerful group that got—is it Susan McCombs agriculture?
DT: Susan Combs.
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SL: Susan Combs. They got her involved. And they got Frank Madla [Texas state representative] involved. And—I can’t remember some of the other politicians who were involved, but they—the—and we had public forums in Uvalde before we even went to the legislature. I say “we,” I wasn’t really involved that actively, but I was a member of Stewards of the Nueces. And—because we had problems on the Frio too, and I had been trying to—to do something about a crossing near my place where people would go into the river and have barbecues with their bar-b-cue things on the back of pickups and just tossing their charcoal and stuff wherever they wanted to. And setting up volleyball nets, and—I don’t think vo—I don’t think the volleyball nets hurt that much, but—but anyway, they would
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run—they would take their pickups and run up and down as far as they could. And anyway, it just really ticked off a lot of people on the Nueces because—and there was a—one instance where one of the r—residents shot at somebody in their pickup, and injured the driver, and I think the passenger. No killing involved, but it was a big furor, you know, and the sheriffs department here. And so that kind of really threw the spotlight on it. And in the public forum that they had here in Uvalde, it was the off-
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roaders versus the residents and the environmental folks. And they had some funny reasons why they wanted—why they thought they should be able to run their pickups up and down the river. And one of them was, well, grandma—we—we take grandma for a picnic, and she can’t walk. And if we take her to the edge of the river, well, it’s all trashed up. But if we can drive her down to X spot, well, then we can have a pickup in a really pretty area. We all sat there rolling our eyes. But there were a lot of funny—and we have the right to use this water because this water is the state water. And of course, there were tons of other reasons where we could tell them, well, you can’t, you know—
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rivers aren’t meant to be highways, that kind of thing. So there were a lot of—there was a lot of back and forth. So they created a—a River Advisory Group so that these two groups, these two camps could get together and try to iron out their differences. But it just—it just kind of fizzled. Didn’t work. So they had to go to the legislature and get a bill passed. And it does prohibit vehicles from Texas rivers. Thank God. But they still have to be careful because people are still going to want to get their off-road kicks, and
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you know, they’re—we don’t have a lot of law enforcement out here. So it’s just, you know, the neighbors have to call up another neighbor and tell them so-and-so’s on your place. A lot of that is done here because it’s just an easy way to pass information down. We did that on the Frio. We had a flood alert thing that we used. We’d just—you know, you call one person, and then they call five other persons, and those people call, and you go on downriver with it. But there’s still going to be problems with it, because the off-roaders want to create—there—there was a—the legislators left a loophole. They said that counties could create a public area for recreation. And it kind of—the off-roaders are
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trying to use that to force counties to make parks so that they can take their vehicles into the river. But I don’t see it going anyplace, because they would be—it would be so circumscribed. You know, you can’t get in there and, you know, take your vehicle for miles. But there was a plan mooted for the Nueces by just the off-road group in this county that would cover, like—there were little spots all along the Nueces where they would be able to get in. And it would—it covered like thirty-three miles. So you know, they’re in there still—still pushing. But I don’t—I don’t think they’re going to be able to do anything very important.
DT: I guess since the Frio is such a scenic river that it pulls people from all over. And some come in their pickup trucks, some come to actually stay and live there. And I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about the trend toward subdividing some of the older traditional ranches into…
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SL: Oh, yeah. That’s my pet peeve, I think.
DT: What’s the concern?
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SL: I don’t think there is very much concern except among the environmentally conscious. Usually a lot of these—ranching doesn’t make any money. Not now. Maybe hunting leases will make—well, hunting leases are used to supplement a rancher’s income. And, yes, if you’re—if you own a ranch and you have big bucks, like you have that ranch just for your second home or something, those people can keep it intact. But if you’re an old-timer, and you’re getting older, and you need that money, and land values there are just enormous. I mean they’re—they’re really going way up there. And at one
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point we talked about forming a land trust because we already had our nonprofit status. But we just didn’t have enough people to manage that, especially when the easements that are created under land trusts are—you know, they have to go on forever and ever. And I just—I couldn’t—unless we linked up with a nature conservancy, I mean there are several s—land trusts. I mean there are a lot of land trusts all over Texas now. It’s still possible to do that. I d—right now I don’t have the energy to do that, but I wish someone would do it because it’s really needed, because there are still some really large tracts of land that could be protected by just protecting their river banks.
DT: And the thought would be…
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SL: And it’s not that invasive. I mean the whole easement idea is mostly you can do pretty much what you want to, and you can—you can get a tax—tax—you can get tax breaks by doing that. And it’s not that intrusive to ma—it doesn’t sound like it to me.
DT: And what is the threat? Say a place is subdivided. How does that affect the watershed and the river itself?
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SL: The subdivisions?
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SL: Well, the problem is is that they’ve got a—they—you know, they’ve got to have—they’re going to make roads, they’re going to clear land, they’re going to have to have septic tanks, and a water supply. And we just had a fight there over Leakey Springs which is a—the springs just east of Leakey and it already has some housing around it. But another subdivision wanted—wanted to put a well very near those springs. And so one of the residents there just fought, fought, fought to keep them from placing it that close to
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the spring, so now they have another location. So, you know, every subdivision that comes in is going to have to have some kind of water supply. And hopefully it won’t be from the river. But they can use river water. You can use it without a permit for your house, your yard—your—your home garden, and your cattle. So, you know, groundwater is going to be a big problem, too. Not just drawing water from the surface river, but just drilling all the wells that people are going to have to drill is—is going—I—
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I’m sure groundwater is going to have to be—it’s going to have to be controlled probably by the state, sometime in the future because look how it’s already gotten in—you know, the aquifer is already being so mined for its water.
DT: Is that the case around here?
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SL: Well, I don’t know. I’m not a hydrologist.
DT: Has there been (?)?
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SL: But to me, it seems like there is so much development along the upper Frio that it’s pulling a hell of a lot of water out. And, you know, in a drought—in the times of drought, it’s a real problem. And water permit holders, they’ve already over-permitted water from the Frio for commercial reasons. The Water Master has told us that. So if there’s a drought, and there’s not enough water in the river, then the first water right holder gets the first crack at it. And it—the—and—and it still has to be rationed. So every water right holder will get their portion. But first—first out of the bag would be the—the—the oldest water right holder. So you know, that tells you right there that
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water is over-committed. That’s a huge problem. And conservation hasn’t been—hasn’t really been—it’s like the gasoline thing. I mean the oil—the energy—the whole energy thing in our country is crazy. They haven’t really studied—well, well they’ve studied the alternatives but they haven’t funded it. They haven’t gotten it out there to show people, hey, this is easy to do.
DT: We’ve talked so far about agriculture, and about native plants, and about the river and the water in it, water under it. You’re a member of the Texas Ornithological Society, and American Birding Association, and the Audubon Society, and you travel widely to look at birds and study them. Can you talk a little bit about some of your favorite trips and the kind of pleasure or experiences you get from birding?
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SL: Well, I think I really got interested when I was working in the orchard. I think I told you about the woodpeckers. They love fruit. And so that was the first look I had at Golden-fronted woodpecker, which is—is one of the South Texas birds. And—or Texas birds, actually. And then I went to write about a group that was at Concan at—at Neal’s Lodges. And they—I did not know it then, but they have a lot of birders coming into Neil’s Lodges from all over the world, it turns out. And if you would believe that people will come here from England to see the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. And I just—
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it—it just kind of grew from just looking at birds on my property. And the TOS, the [Texas] Ornithological Society has these fantastic fieldtrips twice a year, and they’re very modest. I mean that’s my—you don’t have to spend a whole lot to go on them. They’re usually really good birders who lead these trips. And I just—it’s—it’s a won—it’s meditation. Bird watching is like meditation to me.
DT: In what way?
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SL: Well, you’re outside, it’s quiet, you’re looking at something really beautiful. And of course, if you have good binoculars. Mine have—with my eye problem, I have to have pretty high powered binoculars. But you’re seeing something really beautiful. Of course it takes—you know, you have to be pretty quick to see it sometimes. But it’s like any other hobby that you have. The more you do it, the more you love it. And I’m not quite as intense as I used to be because of the eye problems, but I try to—I try to work in some kind of a foreign trip, if I can, every year. I’m—one of the most interesting is down to Costa Rica. And…
DT: What do you see there?
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SL: Oh, we saw trees that looked like Christmas trees. They had—they had so many birds in them. Of different species. I mean how many times do you see that here? Any—anywhere that people can go near the equator to see wildlife is just marvelous, because that’s, you know, ideal conditions for nurturing animals and plants. So one other trip was Ecuador. I went there with my step kids. And we went to the Galapagos. And there’s some, you know, very rare finches there that Darwin had studied that gave him the idea for some of the evolutionary processes. And—didn’t get to see all the finches,
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but I saw a lot of other stuff. And then I went to a—oh, it was kind of like a refuge on one of the headwaters of the Amazon, which is, you know, on the other side of Ecuador. And that was fascinating to see, you know, more of a tropical area. And to see the—the abundance of wildlife, it’s just staggering. I mean there’s—there’s no way that you can—unless you study before you go. You get all the books and you look at all the species, and kind of know what you’re going to see. When you—when you don’t do that and you see them, your mind gets terribly muddled because you’re seeing so much stuff. But it’s—it’s a really interesting group of people, too. I like—I like to be with birders because, not only do they like to go birding, but they like to have fun too. And they’re interesting to talk to when—you know, once you get off the birding trail.
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Sometimes they get to be too much on the birds. I mean it’s like—there’s com—you know, they get competitive about it. And there are these—you know, I—I guess you know about the big challenge that they have on the—on the coast. They send people—they send out teams. And the people who can see the most species in a twenty-four hour period, you know, get a trophy. Well, I—I couldn’t do that. I mean that’s not my style. I can understand why they do it though, because there is some kind of hotshot young birders that, you know, have wonderful eyes, and they just pick up on it like that. And that’s good.
DT: From birding, have you noticed any trends in populations or species going up, going down? Any connections with the habitat issues?
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SL: Yeah. We—are you familiar with the big Golden-cheeked warbler fight? That’s a problem, but I don’t think it’s as much of a problem as they said it was when the whole thing blew up, and private property rights entered into it. And that’s a real good history of what happens in the property rights movement, because once these—once the Audubon people, and nature conservancy, and all the environmental groups decided to go a little bit more soft—soft touch and low key, and decided to get to be friends with some of the ranchers who were clearing land, they did a heck of a lot better to convince—to get—to get the clearing of land more refined. You know, an example is cedar. You know, everybody thinks, oh, that cedar is so terrible, it’s going to soak up all the water,
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and we have studies to show that it just takes up too much water, ya-da-da-da-da. Well, that may be. But now they know that, yes, you can clear some of those cedars in flat areas, but you better leave them on hillsides because they were there even when the Indians were burning the grass on the plains, and that’s where some of these endemic bird species live. So the environmental part of birding, or of bird protection has—(?) all—is also interesting. And it’s—it’s evolved in a much better way because all—so many people now are looking at ecotourism for another source of income. And maybe we can convince some of those big land owners to start doing something like that instead of
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subdividing. But they make such a ton of money from it. I’m—how do you fight money? How do you fight it? I just don’t know. How do you fight, you know, these big fortunes that people make in developing, and real estate? I mean we are a materialistic society, so I—you know, unless you can con—you know, convince that whatever they leave in—in the vege—in the way of vegetation is going to—is going to increase the—to me—see, that—that makes sense. To me, all of these plants need to be viewed in economic terms. And that’s what some people are doing in other countries. Maybe
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they’re doing it here too. They’re trying to show people how valuable those natural resources are without cutting them. What do they produce? What kind of fruits do they produce? Instead of cutting them for wood, what can you sell, you know, in fruits or berries, or you know, leaves that can be dried for herbs, yada—you know, on down the line? And I hope that the River Authority perhaps can reach some developers with
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something to the effect that, yeah, you can—you can make a lot more money on your homes if you’ll just leave some of the vegetation on it, and just let people—you know, let that site be built without too much disturbance around it. But they won’t—you know, you—you’ve seen some of the tract housing in—in Austin. Did you come through any parts of San Antonio? Did you see some of the clearing there? It’s horrendous. It’s—oh, oh, I d—I almost cry when I pass one of those places. But the only way to—the—to me, the only way to transform people’s thoughts about that is to show them the value. Put it in money terms. Hey, this sage is worth X dollars to a buyer, say.
DT: This would be a good time to talk a little bit about what is the message to maybe somebody who is either a young person who hasn’t come to understand some of the conservation issues that you have or somebody who’s maybe not disposed to talking about these developers. What would be your message to somebody to try and explain why you’ve been concerned about these issues, and what they should consider?
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SL: Well, because, you know, stripping the land of its natural vegetation is really losing your heritage. And it’s losing—it’s—it’s—it’s making you more vulnerable to flooding, erosion, just lack of production. It would be damaging to wildlife. There are a lot of young kids in our area who hunt. I mean they start kids hunting when they’re seven years old up here. If they could be shown—for example, if—if they could be shown that the deer they hunt would be a lot better off the more stuff they have to eat,
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that might be a way to, you know, change their minds. What I’m talking about on development is—is the big, big whole scale, just scraping land off for a subdivision. That’s what—I think—I think most of the—and of course small land owners do that too. As far as what to tell young people, it’s—it’s almost like you have to change people’s ideas about what aesthetics are. What’s aesthetically pleasing to them. Would they rather see an over-grazed pasture full of rocks and weeds, and kind of debris, and not very many plants? Or would they rather see something then that has never been touched?
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Would you like to come and see my river front, which has not been touched, and still has most of its unspoiled beauty? Or would you rather go to see a home site in one of the subdivisions? Which one would you rather live in? And another item is lay—is—is your energy level. Would you rather get out there on the weekends and mow your lawn, and trim your bushes? Or would you rather just kick back and drink a beer and relax? I have to laugh at people who come out here. They buy a home. They buy a home on the Frio so they can get away from Corpus or Houston or San Antonio, wherever—whatever big
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city they live in. Come up here, they got to—got to get their cabin fixed up. First thing they do is start to mow the grass. I swear. It’s crazy. I mean they’ll come every weekend, and they will, you know, get the yard together. And it’ll be an urban yard. It’ll be the lawn, and the box hedges, or whatever. M—maybe even oleander, which doesn’t—I mean even grow—won’t grow very well here. It’s—so many of our problems are just caused by ignorance. And that doesn’t mean stupidity. People are—you know, they can learn. But they just don’t know. They don’t know what they do. They don’t know what they do to resources.
DT: Maybe it’s a hopeful note to end on. If they…
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SL: Doesn’t sound very hopeful.
DT: Well, no. That people can learn, and…
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SL: Here I am preaching.
DT: Thanks for making your effort both with us, and for many years before to (?)…
00:54:07 – 2356
SL: I hope I didn’t sound too much like I was on a soapbox. I really tend to get kind of…
DT: Not at all.
00:54:12 – 2356
SL: …overdone. But thank you. I’ve—I’m very honored to do this. This is really interesting.
DT: Well, you were kind to spend the time with us. Appreciate it.
End of Reel 2356
End of Interview with Susan Lynch