Tenemos el Universo Adentro/We have the Universe within

by Pablo Montes

“What we do to the water here goes to the ocean and affects the waters on the other side of the world. When we protect the waters here, that means we are protecting the waters everywhere and for all of us.” – Maria Rocha, Coahuiltecan Elder

The Texas Water Stories research includes a collaboration with the annual Summer Encounter for children and youth, hosted by the Indigenous Cultures Institute in San Marcos, TX. The encounter is lead by the Coahuiltecan Elders of the Maikan/Garza Band of Texas. Each year there is a theme that helps guide the ceremonial encounter and this year the theme was the Universe within us; all that which is created in the universe is already embodied within us. We began the encounter with a water ceremony at the sacred springs in San Marcos.

Because we began with a water ceremony, throughout the entire week of the Summer Encounter we remained in ceremony. Through song, theatre and dance, participants learned the creation story of the Coahuiltecan peoples and its inherent connection to the sacred springs of San Marcos.

“This water has now touched all of you and you are now connected to these waters and each other… When we are gone and someone asks you how to ask permission and call on your ancestors with the help of these waters, you will now know how to help your community. “

Over the course of the week, the young people engaged with situated Indigenous knowledges and teachings from and by the Indigenous community. Summer encounter curriculum included teachings on living in ethical relationality with more-than-human life, the impacts of settler colonialism, genocide, and racism, and responsibilities to the lands and waters. Towards the end of the encounter, we took a glass-bottom boat tour of the sacred spring in San Marcos. The following is an excerpt of a dialogue between the tour guide and one of the youth:

Youth: Where is the crack?

Guide: What crack?

Youth: The one where the waterbird dove into to get the people with the deer [in the Coahuiltecan creation story]?!?

Guide: I don’t think I’ve ever heard it

Youth: Someone needs to tell him the story!

What might be learnt from these frictions between Euro-western sustainability discourses and Indigenous peoples and knowledges? How can decolonial environmental educational work with young people, such as the Summer encounter be an avenue for such potentials?

Sacred Springs Powwow

The annual Sacred Springs Powwow is held by Indigenous Cultures Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the research and preservation of the culture, arts, traditions, ceremonies, and languages of the population collectively known as Coahuiltecans.

Our presence at the annual Sacred Springs Pow Wow as part of the Texas Water Stories research enabled us to gather situated water narratives from Indigenous youth, children, and elders from multiple lands across Texas. Elders shared perspectives on changes to waters over time, such as the marked increase in catastrophic flooding in Central Texas; on water as sacred being, and the importance of care-taking of water for future generations. Multiple creation stories and oral traditions of waters and lands were shared – all brought together by an emphasis on the importance of living and teaching reciprocity.

Concrete+water encounters: Unsettling nature/culture divides

After following the creek through concrete tunnels and pathways, an invitation was given to children to visually express their relations with the creek and its travels with more-than-human others including concrete, waste, and algae. In offering this invitation to the children, Nnenna intentionally referred to the creek as a living being, such as by using “she” to speak of the creek. This is part of our ongoing efforts as educators to be aware of the ways in which our modes of expression highlight the liveliness and agency of the creek.


A: I think the creek likes this side because it gives sticks to people that it can play with. The other side is sad because of the algae. I’m not sure if the algae is good or bad.

Z: I think that this side is happier because there’s more trees for kids to climb on. This side is sad because of the concrete.

A: what’s wrong with concrete?

A’s complicated question: “what’s wrong with concrete”  is an important opening towards the complexities of nature-culture relations, particularly as we noticed with the children how beyond the school,  the creeks flows through many man-made tunnels and concrete pathways, passing close to apartment buildings and underneath roads.

What is wrong with concrete?

The effects of concrete production on greenhouse gases are significant; clearly for this and many other reasons, concrete is not an innocent material – yet the question is perhaps a reminder wonder about easy moves to divide good/bad in ways that reiterate the nature/culture divide.

Witnessing natureculture encounters

There is an element of performativity to witnessing…Practices of witnessing perform worldings that interrupt what is considered important…in everyday life (Nxumalo, 2016, p. 3).

Children’s inquiries with Tar Branch Creek, a creek that borders their school have often returned to the question of the waste that accumulates within and alongside the creek, especially after a heavy rain. A question that has emerged and re-emerged from children’s encounters with creek-waste assemblages, is where is the waste coming from?

Several theories about this question have been put forward by the children; including things flushed down the toilet – becoming sewage – becoming waste at the creek. Several children discuss the possibilities of trash being thrown from car windows or being carried down with the flow of water. Their theories include that these items are discarded by neighbours whose homes share a border with the creek. Today one child points to the example of a lawnmower that has been discarded close to the water.

On this particular cloudy day, as part of the ongoing investigation of creek-waste flows, we decided to follow the creek upstream with the children beyond the boundaries of the school. We asked the students to pay close attention and to practice ‘close noticing’ as we walked. Even before we left the school area, some children noticed different animal tracks along the creek; some that they said were deer tracks, and others they thought were raccoon tracks.

The entanglements of nature and culture were particularly noticeable as we walked (and ran). We held hands to cross the human-made street that is built over the water flow and impacts how the creek travels as well. We stopped to notice a space alongside the road we crossed, where there were several discarded beverage containers along with fast food waste. Children were uncertain if this was the place where the trash in the creek was coming from, so we continued.

The tunnels underneath the streets also beckoned to the children. Some stood nearby cautiously looking in and noticing how the water flowed out and pooled into the surrounding enclosures while others rushed into the darkness playing with how their voices echoed back from the concrete walls. Several children noticed the difference in this area from the school-creek-forest area.

Our embodied, multisensory noticing also attended to the algae growing out of concrete pathway that had been created for the creek.

S:    Squishy, I like it, it feels bouncy

L:  It’s trapping the trash; L theorizes the collaborative workings of concrete-algae-water-trash 

W: It’s making the water smell yucky

I  find myself struggling with set ideas of waste management, a urge to clear ‘our’ creek. Also, changing my language and how I speak about the natural world that leaves room for response-ability and not ownership. I have been reflecting on how the children have talked about how ‘the trees are listening’, quieting their voices to a whisper. S.A.  turning around with a ‘Hey, what do you want’ as a tree branch brushed his back as if it tapped him deliberately. Additionally, several of the children have recently given male and female forms to the things around us after studying nouns in Spanish and their grammatical gender.Children seem to have a general idea of the creek that we usually explore and the area upstream being separate. Given that the landscape is drastically different, I also catch myself referring to one side from the other. I am taking pause to think about how I frame my language when discussing the creek with the children. I am reminded by two things that stood out to me in discussing our inquiry with educators in Victoria, British Columbia:

“the waste lives in the forest too.”
“If we are paying so much attention to the garbage, what are we missing?”

Although it pains my heart to see so much waste and byproducts of overconsumption in our natural landscapes I try to stay mindful to these ideas.

Our visit with the creek this week illustrated the many species who are in relationship with Tar Branch creek and her flows. The creek continues to nurture life. Plants, algae, fish, and more persist amidst the trash and concrete. Many species are entangled with this creek and today children and educators were able to witness these entanglements. With this knowledge about how the creek is responding to changes in how it flows (concrete walls, tunnels) and waste, I am troubled to find ways to be a “good” neighbor to the creek while recognizing the creek’s agency in responding and adapting to human actions.

I am struck by the contradictions of this place – a stunning waterfall at the entrance to one of the tunnels; clear water at parts of the creek where some children and educators spot small fish; plastic bags and a myriad of other discarded waste throughout our walk. I remain unsure how to respond to the waste with the children… without falling back on neoliberal ‘waste management’; ‘out-of-sight’ techniques (Zahara & Hird, 2015), especially as I think of the complex microbial ‘intra-actions’ that are happening as creek-waste-algae-microbes meet…What is our response-ability here; even as we are unevenly implicated in this waste landscape?

“Response-ability is not solely or simply the taking up of responsibility (which precedes being)…but also labouring the iterative (re)opening of responsiveness toward the potentiality of perceiving and differently enacting possibilities and problematics within the distributive relations that we inherit and that constitute our being and becoming” (Higgins, 2017, p. 90)

With this knowledge about the multiplicities of creek movements and flows in relationship with concrete pathways, tunnels, waste, algae, fish…..and more, how might children respond to the accumulation of waste in relationship with the creek and it’s more-than-human relations?

How might our  practices unsettle…unsettle recurring descriptors of everyday [outdoor encounters] in relation to innocent, anthropocentric and colonizing understandings that fit neatly into normative quality practice identifiers such as ‘belonging’, ‘ownership’, ‘discovery’, ‘learning about’ and ‘free exploration’ of an untouched natural environment” (Nxumalo, 2016).

What can flooding events teach about multispecies interdependencies and relationality?


Flooding events are something that the children in this Austin, Texas kindergarten classroom are familiar with. The creek adjacent to the school is one site where children witness the impacts of extreme rain storms. “Flooding” and “floods” are words that often echo through this place when children encounter changes in the water level. For example, encounters with a fallen tree bring forward multiple theories about the effects of flooding on the ground (“too spongy”), the roots (“too short”), and the branches (“drank too much creek”). Children also wonder what other kinds of creek life this now fallen tree might support (“a bridge for the deer to cross the creek”). These minor, everyday encounters seem to engage with multispecies interdependencies. We wonder, how might our creek pedagogies further engage the more-than-human effects of flooding? What can flooding events teach us about multispecies interdependencies? How might responding to flooding events enact practices of radical relationality with the more-than-human world?

TallBear, K. (2013). Beyond life/not life: A feminist-Indigenous reading of cryopreservation, interspecies thinking, and the new materialisms. Lecture presented at University of California, Los Angeles, Center for the Study of Women. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkUeHCUrQ6E

Waste Encounters

A long tree branch straddling the creek that had several leaves and wispy twigs twisted around its’ middle invited children’s experimentations. One child moved the branch back and forth across the surface of the water, saying “It’s a mop, I’m cleaning the water.” His words echoed many other conversations between children-teachers-creek-waste. We encountered broken glass, discarded plastic bottles and many other household waste items and children spoke of cleaning up the creek area.

Children’s waste encounters seem to complicate notions of what counts as waste and for whom or what it does so:

For two children, bug catchers became “trash traps” and within these traps some waste became toys; “This one is a toy I really like”…

– they might support the creek in cleaning itself?

One of the questions we are posing in this inquiry, is how can we work with children’s responses to and understandings of environmental damage to create effective and engaging new curricula and pedagogies? Children’s responses in the encounters above suggest that they already have creative ideas and responses – responses that can potentially trouble “neoliberal waste management practices”. From my perspective, children are complicating practices that focus on having waste ‘out of sight’ without attending to the ways in which waste ‘matters’, or how ‘places such as creeks respond to waste’, or ‘what else waste can be’….

– We wonder, what questions can we pose to the children to nurture these creative responses? How can trapping waste also not be a practice of “forgetting waste?

What ‘happenings’ might emerge when children are invited to represent and enact their relations with and response to creek-waste multiple ways? What happens when we pay attention to the ways children move-with creek and waste?

Children already seem to trouble the human-centered ways that adults encounter waste…they do not seem in a hurry to have waste out of sight. Instead, some children continue to fill their nets with waste and carry it around across their shoulders – while also noticing that the waste keeps returning.

“We just clean it over and over and the trash keeps coming and coming.” -L

We wonder what this image of children and waste does — what does it make visible about children’s inheritances of waste-futures?

Teachers are also drawn to the way one child engaged waste as a “lively thing” — telling waste to ‘get in there/stay in there”…