A Walk in the Great Trinity Forest

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The subsuming green of the Great Trinity Forest.

I parked in the heart the nation’s largest urban bottomland forest under Loop 12 yesterday morning. There were potholes in the boat ramp entrance off to the left, QT branded Styrofoam and cardboard everywhere, empty forties. The smell of urine. It wasn’t what I expected of the opening to the “Trinity Forest and AT&T Trails,” an unfortunately corporate nomenclature for what’s supposed to be a pathway into Mother Earth’s comforting bosom. The corporate denotation was unpleasant and disorienting, the damaged state of the parking lot unexpected. But I thought about it for two seconds and decided that Dallas, a corporate city if ever there was one, deserved such stifling labels, and the patrons of its open spaces should expect pungency in a wetland that drains the refuse of several million people.

The Great Trinity Forest, on whose edge I crawled from my car, dwarfs New York City’s Central Park, the famous 840-acre forested area in the Big Apple, by more than seven-fold. Seen from overhead, it looks like a vital but poorly understood organ filtering and processing waste and nutrients inside a cyborg. Driving into its heart, I had felt the anthropomorphic city dissolve. I put away my disappointment in the pollution. I took a deep breath, hoping the trail was open in the pandemic, and ducked into the darkness of the timber, some of it “trophy trees” that are more than 100 years old.

My senses were pulled in every direction, and I quickly found the extent to which parts of the forest itself was being infiltrated by urban elements. The trail was concrete and bordered by a large, mowed margin that maintained pedestrian distance from any dangerous animals that frequent the park. It ran along high-voltage powerlines and a system of paved aqueducts that seemed to feed several lakes I would pass. This channelization was thankfully limited to a few peripheral streams along the Trinity River Corridor in Dallas. Had the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the concrete trail system, had its way decades ago, the entire watershed would have been gutted, streamlined, and paved to drain Dallas’s substantial floodwater.

Alongside these mechanical traffic veins ossifying the once-permeable blackland, a quiet invasion of alien species was taking over. Chinese privet and Japanese honeysuckle — the stuff of naturalists’ angst — engulfed entire old-growth oaks and elms. It constructed walls along the trails and complimented the regime of invasive fauna — feral pigs, nutria — that also wreak havoc on local ecosystems.

But the forest hadn’t been razed. It seemed to swallow everything, a sink into which Dallas shed its expendable parts. A lake I passed was swallowing a withering lamppost. A tree was engulfing a wire fence. The ants were burying the trail, one concrete joint at a time.

Some of the disrepair I noticed — litter, dirty park bench seats — may be due to park management shortages during the coronavirus shutdown. But other, more permanent degradation has been attributed to the surrounding environs: a part of the city that is notoriously neglected and prone to the ravages of racial inequities. The south parts of Dallas are where its largest black populations reside, and, as if cued by this demographic truth, the City lets the area decay more than any other. (A visceral and timely example of this neglect is “Shingle Mountain,” a seven-story tall, multi-block pile of toxic roofing material the City allowed a private company to dump in a black neighborhood on the banks of Five-Mile Creek in South Dallas.)

The Dallas Observer noted in 2008 that “‘The Great Trinity Forest’ has always been more of a concept than a reality,” as environmentalists clung to the name hoping the area may someday be more robustly protected. There has since been progress. For example, the Audubon Society has opened a state-of-the-art nature center very close to the dubiously identified trail I was on. (It was closed yesterday because of the pandemic.)

But signs that more preservation is needed remain. No agency or organization seems to want to take responsibility for the forest. Last year, the Dallas Morning News city columnist Robert Wilonsky observed that to the extent the area is a paradise, it’s an “accidental” one. He wrote:

The Great Trinity Forest was supposed to be a state park. In 1983 the state Legislature approved designating at least 900 acres of the forest as such, as attorney and environmentalist Ned Fritz had hoped. State Sen. Oscar Mauzy, who would go on to sit on the Texas Supreme Court, and state Rep. Al Granoff pushed for the Trinity River State Park, which became a reality on May 30 that year.

But according to this newspaper’s archives, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said it had no money, and no interest, in owning and operating a state park in the heart of The Big City. So, what had been approved was never executed. And now, finally, the forest will fall under the city’s parks department. Sort of. Whatever that means.

When I visited, the water in the streams and lakes was opaque with sediment, parts of the surface filmed over with runoff chemicals (maybe some from Shingle Mountain). The banks bore the markers of high water: plastic and glass bottles, plastic wrap, plastic caps that caught in the weeds as the water last subsided a few days before.

Please don’t take this to mean it’s a dirty place where you shouldn’t go. It’s a dirty place where you should go, where your presence will mean a greater likelihood that it will be meaningfully preserved and where awareness is created that our waste always ends up somewhere real, specific, and beautiful. It may be dirty, but it is a viscerally gorgeous matrix in which a teeming diversity of species needs human love. Wilonsky vividly began his column:

In the Great Trinity Forest, it’s the color that overwhelms at first — the fecund, verdant green that fills the gaze in all directions and swallows you whole. Then, the smell, of peat and petrichor. Then, the sound, of branches swaying and leaves rustling and water rushing and the occasional crunch of something moving, unseen, in the tangles and shadows.

And then you find the secrets: the spring-fed ponds and stumps of ancient graves and farmlands wrapped in rusted barbed-wire.

The Observer writer, Jim Schutze, ended his 2008 column on a hopeful note: If the forest can be realized as a place where more people rather than fewer can appreciate nature “it’s going to be wonderful. In fact the whole forest thing is perfect. It’s the best possible enterprise we could be spending our money and our time on: the creation of a municipal soul.”

While controversy over management of the Great Trinity Forest lingers — and, hell, I’d love to dive further into it in a future essay — I’d like slow briefly down to dwell on the elusive nature of the species that lurk in it, creatures I’d hazard the average observer is not aware call Dallas home.

For some naturalist classes I’m taking, part of my duties is to create a working list* of wildlife — animals particularly — that inhabit the forest. On my walk, which lasted maybe two hours, I saw great egrets, barn swallows, northern cardinals, a river cooter, a green anole, an ornate tree lizard, a mess of butterfly species of which I’m not yet a good enough naturalist to identify.

On my way out the forest, I crossed a culvert and from the bridge spotted a turtle sunning itself on a bank by a pond. I wanted to get closer and shuffled on my ass down the side of the trail to the bank. The turtle plopped into the water. Part of the trail construction, a concrete apron extended out of the culvert toward the pond. It was hollowing out and buckling under the hydrology that constantly assaults it. The resulting holes had formed a perfect habitat for venomous copperheads and water moccasins. I noticed the leaf litter, the mess of tunnels, the hiding places.

I’ve been researching venomous snakes for a few months for a separate project. The imagery of necrosis, missing fingers, and fasciotomies I’ve photographed flooded my mind. I mentally conjured a rhumba of silent serpents amassing on the ground and realized I’d made a huge, unthinking mistake.

It’s an ecological truth that we don’t see the vast bulk of creatures we come very close to. Most have evolved the basic defensive — or predatory — mechanism of blending into their environment. It was a warm day, and the snakes were certainly out getting some spring sun. I’m unsettled to know I didn’t see even one of them.

Things can hide in places like the Great Trinity Forest, and that’s one of the coolest things about it. I’ll definitely be back.

*These are only a few of the dozens of species that found their way into my incomplete list:

Birds

Fulica americana, American coot
Bombycilla cedrorum, Cedar waxwing
Ardea herodias, Great blue heron
Charadrius vociferus, Killdeer
Egretta caerulea, Little blue heron
Passerina ciris, Painted bunting
Vireo olivaceus, Red-eyed vireo
Buteo lineatus, Red-shouldered hawk
Buteo jamaicensis, Red-tailed hawk
Agelaius phoeniceus, Red-winged blackbird
Tyrannus forficatus, Scissor-tailed flycatcher
Egretta thula, Snowy egret

Mammals

Castor canadensis, American beaver
Lynx rufus, Bobcat
Sigmodon hispidus, Hispid cotton rat
Canis latrans Coyote
Feral hog
Sciurus niger, Fox squirrel
Myocastor coypus, Nutria
Procyon lotor, Raccoon
Odocoileus virginianus, White-tailed deer

Reptiles/Amphibians

Alligator missippiensis, American alligator
Rana catesbeiana, Bullfrog
Hyla chrysoscelus, Cope’s gray tree frog
Agkistrodon contortrix, Copperhead
Coral snake
Pantherophis guttatus, Corn snake
Nerodia rhombifer, Diamondback water snake
Gastrophryne carolinensis, Eastern narrowmouth toad
Hyla cinerea, Green tree frog
Scincella lateralis, Ground skink
Incilius valliceps, Gulf coast toad
Siren intermedia, Lesser siren
Lampropeltis triangulum, Milk snake
Acris crepitans, Northern cricket frog
Terrapene ornata ornata, Ornate box turtle
Trachemys scripta elegans, Red-eared slider turtle
Ambystoma texanum, Smallmouth salamander
Lithobates sphenocephalus, Southern leopard frog
Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri, Texas rat snake
Bufo speciosus, Texas toad
Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma, Western cottonmouth

I like to write about human-wildlife relationships, mostly.

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