WHEN I WAS GROWING UP IN ARLINGTON in the forties, the upper Trinity River was a dirty joke. No one wrote love songs about the Trinity, much less ate its fish or canoed its rank and odoriferous waters. Today, the upper part of the river is a metaphor for mismanagement and neglect, cited among the top ten most endangered rivers in America. Nevertheless, for more than a century, chamber of commerce yahoos have clung to the delusion that the Trinity will someday be a 524-mile ship channel—an ersatz Port Metroplex connecting Dallas-Fort Worth to Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
So you can imagine my surprise upon discovering that the lower Trinity, that stretch of the river just north of Galveston Bay, is a place so magical and exotic that it seems right out of the pages of Tolkien. My education began last winter, while I was researching a story on Galveston Bay. My friend Shannon Tompkins, a 49-year-old biologist and outdoors writer for the Houston Chronicle, had taken me to a rookery just east of the bridge where Interstate 10 crosses the river. To my amazement, the rookery turned out to be part of an incredibly beautiful and mysterious cypress swamp, so unlike the Trinity of my boyhood that it was hard to believe this was the same body of water. Shannon grew up in Baytown, has lived near the river since he was in grade school, and knows every oxbow, slough, and bayou. The rookery is only a small piece of the vast swamp, he informed me, one of the last of its kind in Texas. Unfortunately, the Trinity was so swollen from winter rains that a trip upriver would have been foolhardy, so Shannon suggested that I come back in the spring.
Early on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, I again found myself at the rookery with Shannon. The first soft light of morning broke above the ground fog, twinkling off the shocking pink of a pair of roseate spoonbills gliding overhead. Crossing a footbridge, I stood at the edge of a shimmering world of electric-green water plants, giant cypress trees, Spanish moss, and so many snowy egrets, great blue herons, and other nesting birds that the trees appeared to be doing a fan dance. Without my noticing it, the rumble of eighteen-wheelers had given way to a chorus of birds and bullfrogs. A small alligator rustling through a cluster of water hyacinths watched us with patient yellow eyes. “We seem to have dropped off the edge of Texas and landed in some Louisiana swamp,” I observed.
“Thousands of cars a day pass over the I-10 bridge, yet nobody notices what’s down here,” Shannon said. “ ‘Rivers and the inhabitants of the watery element were made for wise men to contemplate and fools to pass by.’ Izaak Walton wrote those words in the 1600’s.” Shannon is that rarest of men, a college-educated swamp