“Wilderness is a rare and shrinking thing around the world. Its destruction aches and hurts. It’s like someone dying that you love,” said Brock Evans of the Sierra Club recently.
Wilderness is not yet dead in Dallas County, though its health is certainly in jeopardy. Compared to other cities its size, Dallas ranks number one in the amount of open space per capita, though so much of the acreage is in golf courses and inaccessible bottom land that the picture may look a bit rosier than it is.
Statistics alone can’t tell us what we have left – the small pockets where meadowlarks and herons, foxes and coyotes are still to be seen, where native grasses and ancient trees still grow. Statistics can suggest the danger these quiet areas are in. With many tracts of land selling for $20-30,000 an acre, it has become increasingly difficult to convince taxpayers and city council members that land should be set aside and protected for future generations. Some urge buying additional lands only if something “practical” can be done with them, such as covering them with tennis courts and baseball diamonds.
Environmentalists, understandably, are uncomfortable with the “practical” approach. For most of them, leaving a piece of land undeveloped is the most creative thing to do with it. It’s thanks to their persistence, plus the generosity and foresight of the Samuells, Kiests, and Houstons, that the city has not been completely paved over.
“All is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;/And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell,” wrote the poet Hopkins exactly 100 years ago, “And for all this, nature is never spent;/There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Here on the next few pages are places, virtually in our backyards, where that freshness still lives.
You’ve probably zoomed past Samuell East Park dozens of times on your way to Tyler or Bossier City and never realized it was there. Next trip, get off on 1-20 at Belt Line, go about half a mile up the service road, and take a look around.
The park is actually divided into two major parts. On the north side of the highway, smack up against an airstrip for model planes, is one of the largest sections of undisturbed native prairie in the area. If you’ve ever wondered what Dallas County looked like 100 years ago, here’s the place to find out. Expanses of undulating, not flat, land covered with an astonishingly thick carpet of grasses: Indian and Buffalo grass, Big and Little Bluestem. The hay from this area is so rich that for years the elephants at the Dallas zoo wouldn’t eat anything else. You’ll find most of the typical prairie birds here, such as quail, scis-sor-tailed flycatchers, and meadowlarks, as well as rabbits, cotton rats, and, on occasion, coyotes. Too bad they don’t eat model airplanes.
On the south side of the interstate is a small farm museum (most of the park is farmland that is in the process of becom-ing prairie once again) with exhibits of vintage tools and machinery. It’s worth a visit, but be sure to keep going across the creek into the groves of pecan and bois d’arc trees. This is a lovely place for a picnic, with only birds, squirrels, and a few water snakes to keep you company. You should also spend some time exploring the extensive cedar brake area in the southwest corner of the park. Lie down, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and pretty soon you won’t even hear the tractor trailers whining in the distance.
Bachman Lake Park
Hemmed in by Lemmon Avenue, Coch-ran Chapel Road, and the kitschy Tudor gables of the Royal Coach Inn on North-west Highway is another, smaller tract of prairie, Bachman Lake Park. Naturalists disagree about its virginity but no one who has spent any time there will dispute its beauty. Silver Bluestem, Buffalo Grass, verbena, and anemone are there in abundance, along with some enormous burr oaks, a dwindling species, down along the creek. Because the park is a transition zone between woodland and grassland habitats, it is also a favorite stopping place for birds: quail, dove, shrike, redheaded and red-bellied woodpeckers, mallards and teal in the winter. More remarkable than the number of species, however, is the fact that the park exists at all, an island of unmowed, nearly undisturbed nature in the middle of one of the most heavily developed sections of the city. Once in a while you’ll meet a jogger or a cyclist, but most of the time the area is so peaceful and deserted that you’ll have to remind yourself that you’re in the city. And that, surely, is one of the strongest arguments one can make for natural areas.
L. B. Houston Park and Nature Area
By all accounts, L. B. Houston Park on Tom Braniff Drive, just off route 114 near Texas Stadium, is the richest, most diversified natural area in the city. Anyone writing a natural history of Dallas could almost begin and end here. Beaver, virtually unknown in the area 15 years ago, can now be seen all along the banks of the Elm Fork. So can opossum, gray fox, rabbits, and raccoons, although you have to be patient to get a look at them. Walk back into the woods, so thick in places as to appear woven, and you’ll see burr oaks, box elders, ash, American elms, and many other species that represent the intrusion of a woodland habitat into the prairie. The ’Forty-Niners crossed the river here on their way to California (thus California Crossing Road) and some naturalists believe that at least a few of the trees in the park date from that period. Anyway, they’re big, some of the largest you’re likely to see in a region that was almost completely stripped of timber before 1900. Here the term “wilderness” still has validity. If you visit the park in late October and early November, you’ll see many migratory birds. You may also run across bee rustlers who scour the area regularly collecting natural honey. Nobody has determined what the fine for that is.
In the next bond issue, the Park and Recreation Department hopes to get funds for an interpretive center. You needn’t wait that long, however. The Museum of Natural History has published an excellent free guide to the park. Pick up a copy, and while other people are fighting their way through the Texas Stadium traffic you can spend a few quiet hours looking for the semipalmated sandpiper.
Audubon Sanctuary, Mountain Creek Lake
Found any shark teeth lately? How about a chip off an old pterosaur or a bone from one of the great carnivorous fish – a mosasaur, let’s say. Fossil hunters grin whenever you mention Mountain Creek Lake. So do herpetologists, bird watchers, and botanists. Don’t be put off by that expanse of muddy, motionless water, Dallas’ own little Slough of Despond. Just turn left at the end of Kiest Boulevard, beyond Dallas Baptist College, and drive about two miles to the Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary at the south end of the lake. A path leads directly into a savannah or tall grass area that is much loved by short-eared and great-homed owls because of all the juicy rodents it hides. Unfortunately, the area is also thick with mosquitoes and poison ivy, so go prepared. Most of this area is covered with Eagleford shale, a fossil-rich rock that has yielded, among other things, the 80-million-year-old fish that is on display at the Dallas Museum of Natural History. While it’s unlikely you’ll find anything quite so spectacular, you may come across a few snails and ammonites, first cousins to squids and octopuses.
If you keep going along the path you’ll eventually come to a creek that leads to the lake and the mud flats. Almost any time of year you’ll see egrets, herons, and kingfishers; during the spring and fall there are plenty of avocets, stilts, and sandpipers around as well. So bring binoculars and boots. Mountain Creek may not be a place you’ll want to spend an entire day, but it is an interesting stop on your way to other areas.
Big Bird Bottoms
The name says it all – a lush, river-bottom habitat frequented by herons, egrets, storks, and many other shore and wading birds. The most convenient access to the area, which is actually a series of small lakes formed by the overflow from the Trinity, is through property owned by the Dallas Fin and Feather Club (1-45 to Dowdy Ferry Road Exit, then left under the highway to Cleveland Road). This means you have to have permission to enter. Once inside, you’ll probably feel that you’ve wandered onto the set of some gothic film. Mist, dark shadows, thick vegetation, a chorus of mysterious swamp sounds. It’s possible to sit here for hours watching a heron fish, as beaver and musk-rats splash all around you and butterflies settle inquisitively on your shoulder. One fellow told us that there are also a few alligators around, but no one else could confirm the story. Too bad.
There are many similar habitats along the Trinity, all of them threatened if the Army Corps of Engineers eventually channelizes the river, but at Big Bird Bottoms you have the advantage of being able to walk perhaps a mile out into the lake along a natural dike. It’s a photographer’s paradise, and even better. if you have a boat and row to the far shore where many of the birds nest. In the fall the area is alive with Canadian geese, blue and green-winged teal, and dozens of kinds of migrating ducks. Maybe a crisp afternoon in late October, when the trees are turning and the water, astonishingly enough, takes on a sparkling blue sheen. You could almost be in New England.
You can also find plenty of fossils at nearby Kiest Park (Kiest Boulevard and South Hampton Road), although they’re likely to be of lowly clams and oysters rather than some glamorous vertebrate monsters. Tennis courts are now encroaching on the nature area, but if you walk around them and down to Five Mile Creek, you’ll get an excellent view of the kind of limestone hills that cover so much of Dallas County. In the spring the creek is roaring but during the summer and fall it is low enough for you to slosh along looking for birds or poking around in the banks and ledges for fossils. The entire area was once a working farm, and some of the signs of this transition are still visible. In fact, one of the most interesting features of this park is the variety of habitats it contains: creek beds, grassy areas, dense woods, with some particularly fine red oaks, and numerous cedar brakes, more than in any other park in the city. At various times we’ve seen gray fox, opossum, raccoons, and a large number of berry-eating birds. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen the work of vandals, who like to tear down signs they can’t read. Because of this problem, the park has a rather questionable standing with the park department. Still, as one of the innermost natural areas in the city, it is well worth a visit.