I’m regularly asked why I stay in Dallas, all by people who have never so much as visited. Yes, it’s hot during our seemingly never-ending summers. Yes, Highland Park produces people so plastic and artificial that they’re just waiting to declare war upon the Daleks. Yes, we’re not known as a haven for artists, writers, or musicians, or at least the work ethic-challenged wannabes waiting for their first million-dollar contract, no matter how hard some city leaders try to turn us into another Portland or Austin. Sometimes that’s the biggest appeal, though, because Dallas forces you to appreciate the little bits of beauty and protect them. Such is the case of the Leonhardt Lagoon in the middle of Fair Park, just south of downtown.
No, the previous photos aren’t left over from a celebration of the life of H.P. Lovecraft. The singular lagoon sculptures therein were created by Dallas artist Patricia Johanson, who wanted to renovate the lagoon with structures evocative of ferns and duck-potato. Not only are they open to the public (in fact, the park encourages people to climb onboard and view the indigenous plant and animal life close-up), but the portions not easily reached by humans are full of basking turtles on most sunny days.
The vast majority of the turtles in the lagoon are the native red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), which feed on insects, fish, carrion, and water plants. Get up high, though, and be surprised at the mud turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum) staying out toward the center. The real fun, though, comes in winter, where walking out onto the platforms might startle a still-active snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) into ducking back under a platform.
Not all of the wonders around the lagoon are natural. Half my life ago, Fair Park hosted the “Rameses the Great” exhibition of Rameses II artwork and artifacts, and the biggest trace was this commemorative stone left behind in 1989.
Likewise, the former Dallas Museum of Natural History building adds a bit to the lagoon’s feel. Back in 1986, construction in downtown uncovered the nearly complete remains of a Columbian mammoth, and volunteers restored and assembled the skeleton at the Museum. (Until the recent move to the new Perot Museum in downtown, that skeleton was one of the highlights of the Texas Giants Hall on the second floor of the old museum.) “Jumbo” is a bronze sculpture intended to give a life-sized view of how the mammoth appeared in life, perpetually overlooking the lagoon but not quite able to get over there for a drink.
And since the main draw of the lagoon is the flora, it’s hard not to notice the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum var. distichum) growing along the banks. T. distichum is a native Texas tree, if not necessarily a native Dallas one: it’s usually found to the east and the south, where wetlands tend to stay wet in the summer. Thanks to the shape of the area, though, the lagoon has a humid microclimate that sustains and encourages the cypress, and it tends to grow much larger here than in most places in Dallas where it’s been introduced.
The famed “knees” of bald cypress are more formally known as pneumatophores or aerial roots, which allow the roots to absorb oxygen in otherwise completely anaerobic conditions. These are also seen in mangroves and other mud-loving trees, but they’re not quite as impressive. The knees in the Lagoon’s cypresses range in size depending both upon their proximity to the lagoon and their proximity to the rest of the landscape: lawn mowers tend to keep them trimmed before they get too tall.
Across from the bald cypresses, off Jumbo’s left shoulder, is this little garden space, featuring a real Dallas native. Mesquite is so common as a shrubby tree in the Dallas area, especially in overgrazed former cattle land, that even many natives don’t know how big it can get given half a chance. Most guides go on about the medicinal uses of mesquite, and you can’t talk about barbecue in Texas without someone talking about getting a cord of well-seasoned mesquite for the grille or smoker. Me, though, I just appreciate the big trees for what they are, and appreciate the shade they offer in the middle of summer.
Finally, here’s a mystery right on the edge of the lagoon. As mentioned before, the whole of Fair Park was constructed as a World’s Fair exposition ground for the Texas state centennial in 1936, but a lot of history disappeared in the years after the city of Dallas took over the fairgrounds for the State Fair of Texas. Of particular note was this petrified log. Some stories relate that the north entrance to the fairgrounds featured an arch made of petrified wood, and this log has a concrete peg at one end that supports the idea (pun intended) of it being part of a larger monument. At the same time, though, nobody can find any definitive proof that any such structure existed. Yet the log exists, and it’s been sitting in that same space by the lagoon for the last quarter-century as proof. Anybody up for borrowing a time machine for a little while to take pictures of it in its old location? Or is it some silent sentinel from an unknown civilization in Texas’s distant past, just waiting for the right event to wake it up?