Summer on the Bend

On Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park

Plus Land Bridges For Publicity, Not Necessary For Wildlife

July 10, 2022

There was an occasional surprise smell of mushrooms on the dirt path through the tangled woods on this early morning. Crows laughed and gossiped in the treetops. Cardinals and wrens flirted back and forth high in the blue sky. Down low there was an annoyed hissing and rapid rustling and hustling away in the crispy fallen leaves.

It was summer and time for our seasonal photograph of the Bend in the River in Houston’s great Memorial Park. But Big Jim, our devoted photographer, naturalist, and conservationist, was not in town, so it fell to the assistant to take the shot. We’ve been documenting the same bend in Buffalo Bayou throughout the seasons for the past eight years.

That bend in the bayou on a summer morning. Taken from the same high bank in Memorial Park where we have been documenting the stream throughout the seasons for the last eight years. Photo July 7, 2022, by SC

The Memorial Park Conservancy, preoccupied with bulldozing trees, pouring concrete, and hanging name plates, does its best to block access to this wild and peaceful southeastern section of our beloved people’s Memorial Park, throwing up wire fencing, tree limbs, and warning signs. But the simple, narrow paths are well-trodden and maintained by anonymous volunteers. Someone has restored the wood handle on the rope swing used by the adventurous to fly across the lovely, shaded creek that drains the center of the park. Further downstream someone else has hung a small rubber swing on the bayou bank.

A sweet little swing on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo July 7, 2022, by SC

There is a long Houston tradition of swings over the bayou, of course, thanks to the strong, gracious trees that grow near the sloping banks. Historically this was a thrill mainly available to those privileged to grow up in upscale neighborhoods on one of the only local bayous that hadn’t been stripped of its trees and straightened in misguided and counterproductive flood control projects. But Memorial Park belongs to everyone, and for many years there was a knotted rope swing hanging from the great arm of the ancient Southern Magnolia that still stands on the bank even further downstream. The rope disappeared years ago, and the massive tree is looking somewhat haggard. One of the world’s oldest plants, there are few magnolias left in the wild. This Magnolia grandiflora could be 200 years old. Could have been there when the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted passed through, noting the beauty and perfume of the magnolias on Buffalo Bayou. (p. 29)

Here’s a short video of the woods and the bayou taken from the bank, along with a glimpse of the sandy creek flowing nearby.

Low Flow in the Bayou

The flow in the bayou on this summer morning was exceptionally low, due to the lack of rain. Base flow is low anyway, around 150-200 cubic feet per second, but the flow was half that. Sandstone outcroppings and strange chunks of asphalt not normally seen were visible in the channel bottom.

But greenery was still growing on the bank, so much so that it wasn’t easy to get a good, clear shot of the bending bayou. It’ll have to do for now.

On the roundabout walk back through the woods, with the cicadas overhead rattling singsong hymns to the heat, the substitute photographer noticed that she had possibly missed the mustang grape season, which may have come early this year due to the heat and drought. The path was littered with smashed purple grapes, which make an excellent sorbet, among other tasty things. Not the smashed ones, but no clusters were visible overhead.

Ode to Concrete. $70 Million Land Bridge Falsely Promoted as Necessary for Wildlife

It’s shocking to see that in addition to the horror of the two concrete tunnels replacing the gentle drive through the soft, green flora of the park, the conservancy has now installed concrete walls announcing the tunnels on the east and west sides. Haven’t asked yet but guessing this might announce the names of those responsible.

Let us be clear. The $70 million spent on those tunnels is not for a wildlife crossing. It’s for publicity. Getting Memorial Park (and the rapidly developing nearby Uptown District) into national media.

The hugely expensive project has been sold, particularly to the environmental community, as a benevolent project to aid wildlife trying to cross Memorial Drive. Land bridges for wildlife across major highways are important. But wildlife in Memorial Park have always had a way to cross the road, as Frank Smith, our founding president, a founding member of the conservancy, has long made clear.

There are several large concrete culverts channeling streams under Memorial Drive and Woodway that have long been used by wildlife in the park. In addition, the land bridge plan includes a stream culvert specially adapted for wildlife to safely pass under the tunnels. There is also a living bridge for pedestrians to cross Memorial near the running center.

The “critter tunnel” under the land bridges in Memorial Park. From a presentation by Shellye Arnold, CEO of the Memorial Park Conservancy, to the Houston Rotary Club, Aug. 12, 2021

The excessive use of concrete violates the spirit of the original planners of the park, who sought to emulate the principles of Olmsted, the great park designer. (pp. 120-121) A park was to be a respite from the “brick and steel, cement and fumes” of the city.

And as our founding president has also argued, the excessive use of concrete also violates the intention of the original park guardian Ima Hogg, who wanted the park to remain natural.

Here’s a video of the experience of driving through the tunnels, once a scenic, soothing drive through tall trees.