Last summer I swam in Barton Springs, a spring-fed pool in the heart of downtown Austin. Although I had lived in Austin for eleven years, it was my first visit to the Springs, a state of affairs that a friend judged “nearly criminal.” On the day my family and I drove to the pool, cars lined Barton Springs Road from the parking lot all the way back to the highway. It was 100 degrees out, and a long line snaked its way along the white-hot cement sidewalk to the entrance gate. Once inside I swam to the middle of the pool and looked east above the tree line, where the Austonian, the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi River, a recent addition to the Austin skyline, commanded the center of my view.
Many complain about the decline of Austin. Aging hippies complain about the arrival of tech workers in the 1980s and 90s, and tech workers complain about the arrival of Californians during the last decade. Traffic is terrible, Lady Bird Lake is full of trash, the food’s not that great, housing values have increased so much that musicians and other artists can no longer afford to live here, there are too many condos, developers are destroying the land and the character of the city, and temperatures will increase so much due to global warming that it will be impossible to live here in a few decades. So goes the litany. And a lot of it is true.
The Barton Springs salamander, which lives only in and around the four artesian springs on Barton Creek, has been on the Endangered Species List since 1997. In spite of efforts to divert runoff from the surrounding neighborhoods, two years ago city testing found that Barton Springs was polluted with fertilizer, motor oil, and metals.
But I have to admit that my first visit to Barton Springs was great. People gasped when they stepped into the chilly spring water (which stays 68 degrees year-round); other swimmers laughed and encouraged them to get in all at once and keep moving. My children collected floating water plants and invented names for them: soft bells, thick roughweed, thin roughweed, water leek. We eventually found friends in the crowd. I relaxed in the shade of a thick, venerable pecan tree, and pondered how many others–generations of Austinites, Anglo and Spanish colonialists, and Native Americans–had enjoyed the springs for thousands of years before me. A web of people and other beings united across time by the springs. Home. Broken and suffering in some ways, but still worthy of love, delight, and wonder (the improbability of cool water flowing from stone!), and still home.
Gary Perez, custodian of the Native American Church National Trust and Sacred Sites Director of the Indigenous Cultures Institute in San Marcos, Texas, speaks about the role that Barton and other major Edwards Aquifer springs play in Native American Church ceremonies. The spring water is “spirit water;” it responds to song, it remembers the songs of Coahuiltecan ancestors, and it is an important component of modern peyote ceremonies. Furthermore, he believes that the springs served as sacred sites for Native Americans living in the region 4000 years ago.
Perez studies the White Shaman Panel, a pictographic mural on the face of a canyon in Val Verde County, Texas, near the convergence of the Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers. Four fountain springs depicted in the painting represent Barton, San Marcos, Comal, and San Antonio Springs, Perez says. He suggests that Native Americans stopped at the springs for purification during pilgrimages to gather peyote cactus further to the south.
Carolyn Boyd, an archaeologist who studies the human use of land, materials, and art in the Lower Pecos River region, says that the mural is “a 4,000-year-old instruction manual for how to properly conduct a religious ritual.” Her interpretations of the rock art are inspired by the mythology of the Wixárika (Huichol), Native Americans who currently live in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in Mexico.
What emerges from the work of Perez, Boyd, and others is that Native Americans have a vital, ritualistic relationship with the spring waters. The precise role the springs held in pre-Columbian indigenous spirituality is lost to time and conquest. Even if those traditions had survived intact, they would not be part of my cultural inheritance; I can take inspiration and guidance from Native American ways of relating to the Land, but must make my own practices and prayers. In the second part of this essay, I continue exploring my relationship with the Springs, including one closer to home.
A version of this article was first published on Anna’s blog, Shrine for Small Gods.
Anna Walther lives in Austin, Texas, where she practices place-based paganism, by honoring ancestors, observing the movements of the sun and the moon, collecting local stories, visiting trees, creeks and springs, and learning about the plants, animals, and minerals with which she shares her home. Anna is a student nurse, and she attends First Unitarian Universalist Church with her husband and children.