Guerrero Colorado River Park Gets Its Day in the Sun

Festival de las Plantas spotlights attempt to reforest Eastside green space

Ricardo Brown Bear had never woven a basket before last Saturday. And as he struggled to twist damp honeysuckle vines into a mug-sized cylinder, it was unclear if he would ever do it again.

"This gives me a totally different appreciation for Easter," the tall twentysomething said as he fought to close some gaps in his weave. "It really relieves the stress, though."

Brown Bear wasn't the only one learning new things at the Festival de las Plantas, Saturday's celebration of East Austin ecology and heritage at Guerrero Colorado River Park. The festival included presentations on natural cooking and organic gardening, and performances ranging from conchero dancers evoking Mexico's pre-Columbian heritage to a troupe of folklorico dancers from McCallum High, who swished and swirled as the onlookers shouted "Hey!" in all the right places. At its core, though, the festival is a celebration of the park itself, 363 acres of slowly reforesting cow pasture smooshed between Austin Community College's Riverside campus and the Colorado River. "The whole thing is to get people back into the park and see how beautiful it is," said Susana Almanza of People Organized in the Defense of Earth and Her Resources, one of the festival's organizers. "It's a hidden jewel."

Almanza, who wore a PODER T-shirt and diamond-shaped earrings made of tiny beads, was watching Helga Garza give limpias to festival attendees, some of whom waited nearly half an hour for their chance at a spiritual cleansing. As an assistant filled the air with plumes of piney smoke from a chalice of charcoal and copal sap – and as Chandra Washington grooved out an a capella song/chant of "If nature didn't make it/Don't take it" from the nearby stage – Garza circled a mid-40s man in a straw hat, muttering prayers and pressing handfuls of leaves over his eyes and arms. She dipped the leaves in water and splashed the drops around. Then she stood behind him, took a big swig from a bottle of agua de florida cologne, and blew it explosively over his neck.

As Garza healed bodies, Kevin Anderson took a group of visitors to see the healing land. Anderson runs Hornsby Bend, the friendlier-than-you-might-imagine sewage treatment facility and environmental research center just down the river; he's also active in the Austin Biodiversity Project, a coalition working to protect and propagate native species. Accompanied by Rene Barerra, preserve manager for the city, he wandered past the crushed gravel of the hike-and-bike trail toward the Colorado River, pointing out a telltale sign of damage on the way – non-native chinaberries, the yellow broomweed flowers that are an unmistakable sign of fields grazed half to death. Barerra has a good half-dozen projects in the works to rescue seeds and plants from development and to reintroduce them into places like Guerrero Park – and, he and Anderson hope, the chunk of undeveloped private land visible across the river from it.

"This is the kind of property we could acquire in the open space bonds in the spring, and start to build a greenbelt," said Anderson, pointing out the land. A pair of turkey vultures circled overhead, their shadows grazing the gravel in the riverbed. Downstream, a group of swimmers splashed beneath the Montopolis Bridge. Anderson led the group back to the festival, passing a TreeFolks booth where foot-tall Lacy Oaks were free for the taking. The saplings were popular – in hands and purses throughout the park, their spindly crowns could be seen bobbing around, suggesting the forest that may one day return.

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Colorado River ParkFestival de las Plantas, Ricardo Brown Bear, Susana Almanza, Kevin Anderson, Rene Barrera, Festival de las Plantas, open space bond, Treefolks

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