There’s a special place in San Antonio that I discovered with some friends back in December 2019. The city has worked to put together 80+ miles of walking/biking trails in what will eventually be a loop around SA. Portions of the Greenway Trails have been around for decades and are being expanded and connected so make one contiguous path. Back in 2012, I trained for a half marathon along a section of the those Trails, and later explored still more as I joined my hiking group in 2019. It was on one of my first outings with my hiking group, along the same path I used to train on a decade ago, that we discovered something magical.
If you go just a little ways off trail and into the woods, you’ll turn a corner and find a gigantic double-trunk live oak tree that is several hundred years old. Despite its size, the tree can’t be seen from the trail, even though it’s maybe 50 feet max away and the trail is easily visible from the tree. Pictures don’t do justice to the size and majesty of this thing. I’ve watched people stop dead in their tracks the first time they see it. It’s that breathtaking.
This past Sunday, it was on fire. From the inside.
Here’s the thing. Most people don’t know about the Big Tree, but some definitely do. People spend time in the clearing around it. Sometimes, they bring offerings – flower bouquets, beaded necklaces, painted rocks, etc. Sometimes they leave religious tracks or build cairns. Sometimes it’s folks out for a party, and they leave behind garbage that ranges from Doritos bags and broken bottles to used condoms and worse. I have no idea if the fire started from a tossed cigarette, or was lit purposely, or if someone left a candle in a hollow in some idea of tribute. All I know is that a brush fire was called in, and it turned out to be the Big Tree burning alive from the inside. No one knows if the Tree will survive, or if it will have to be removed as a safety hazard. (If it falls toward the path, it could kill someone – again, despite not being visible from the trail, this tree is ginormous!)
I keep picturing what it would have been to show up and discover the tree on fire, or to find it covered in fire retardant and caution tape afterwards. Because that was almost the case. My November group photoshoot was centered around the Big Tree. Three friends and I were taking a bunch of props out there to have a fairy-tale ethereal shoot based around the idea of offerings, complete with flowers, wooden beads, acorns, broken pottery, and incense sticks. I was literally about to leave my house – and two of the others were already en route – when another of our friends texted us the news alert about the Tree. If she hadn’t seen the news and passed it along, the four of us would have blithely walked into a nightmare firsthand.
Obviously, we had to do a last minute relocation, and due to the lack of a central focal point to the shoot (aka no Big Tree), we ended up doing a series of photos that became more witchy than fairy tale. Kudos to all of us, honestly, for rallying despite what came as devastating news (for reasons far deeper than losing a photoshoot setting). We pulled it together and honestly had quite a lovely evening, with an end product of photos that weren’t exactly what we pictured, but awesome nonetheless.
I really hope the tree survives. I’m sad to think that someone might have done this, whether intentionally or not, and that more people will now be tramping around this place that honestly feels sacred and magical. I personally haven’t been out to the tree since March 5th, and even then, I was worried for the Tree because someone had taken a knife to parts of it, cutting off sections of bark. It feels strange knowing that I may never be able to go back, to spend time with it again, to introduce other friends to that space. It’s just really sad, and a little surreal, and though it’s been a few days, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it all.