Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and that means one very important thing in the Dallas area. As of today, you can be reasonably sure that we’re not going to have any more subfreezing weather until next December. I wouldn’t recommend planting any tomatoes or peppers for at least another week past this, but gardening season starts today. If you’re looking for inspiration for this year’s horticultural carnage, head out to the Texas Discovery Gardens for some well-placed inspiration on Texas-friendly plants. While you’re at it, spend some time in the butterfly garden, just for relaxation’s sake.
Oh, and while you’re at it, keep an ear open for possible TDC events involving the Texas Triffid Ranch. Nothing’s cast in stone, but here’s a hint:
While it may not seem obvious immediately, wandering around the butterfly garden at the Texas Discovery Gardens brings up a very good question: how does the garden get its butterflies? Well, one could just let them go wild, lay eggs, and let their caterpillars pupate and metamorphose on their own. Considering how most caterpillars find secure and discreet locations to pupate, though, most visitors would never get the chance to see those pupae before the butterflies emerged. In addition, many butterflies and moths have wasp exoparasites that lay their eggs within the pupa and emerge as adult wasps, killing the pupa before it ever gets a chance to develop.
The best option for a compromise that both promises maximum visibility for visitors and maximum protection for the butterflies is the one used by the Texas Discovery Gardens. Toward the back, near the exit airlock, is a rear display full of collected butterfly pupae, carefully pinned to the ceiling. If you’re lucky, during your visit, you might witness a fresh emergence. If you’re really lucky, you might see two separate species emerge at the same time.
Want a firm demonstration of the phrase “I love living in the future”? Look at what can be done with jellyfish enclosures. Jellyfish tanks aren’t absolutely new, but changing lighting that fluoresces the jellyfishes’ internal structures? You need color-changing LEDs for that. In the process, you get a slow, stately progression and circulation that you could watch for hours.
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One of the advantages to a public aquarium is the opportunity to show animal and plant species too dangerous or too invasive to risk general importation. The red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri) is both, but not quite for the reasons one would expect. While legal for individuals to own in states with cold winters, possessing or transporting red-bellies in Texas understandably tends to rub authorities the wrong way. Contrary to popular expectations, the danger of some irresponsible fishkeeper letting piranha loose in Texas waterways isn’t the threat to humans. In their native habitats in the Amazon and Orinoco river networks, they tend to avoid humans. However, as fish-eaters, they’d strip out everything from minnows to alligator gar, and ultimately would leave nothing in our streams, rivers, and reservoirs besides piranha. Better to view them in circumstances such as these, where they aren’t going to get out due to carelessness or neglect.
On the other scale, the other big advantage to a public aquarium is in viewing species too rare or high-maintenance to justify private ownership. For example, the Children’s Museum has a very nice collection of Australian lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri), a species both extremely protected and not suitable for general fishkeeping. Considering the size of adult lungfish, few private aquarists could afford a tank large enough to give one room, much less the three at the Children’s Aquarium. Get three of them together, and you practically have a party.
More to follow….
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Contrary to popular opinion, adult butterflies and moths aren’t all nectar-drinkers. Oh, many are, but many species go for other options. You may have seen photos of Orinoco River turtles covered with white and yellow butterflies perched on their heads, but the butterflies aren’t just using the turtles as resting sites. Instead, they’re taking advantage of the salt secreted from the salt glands resting by the turtles’ eyes. Many species augment sodium or other elements from sweat, overripe fruit, manure, and, sometimes, blood.
Considering the number attracted by fermenting fruit, it’s not really surprising that the Texas Discovery Gardens butterfly garden has a large loquat tree along its entry ramp. The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), sometimes known as “Japanese plum,” is a rather common ornamental tree throughout Texas. While the foliage can handle a typical Dallas winter without problems, the fruit sets and grows through the winter, and that can’t handle our sudden subfreezing stints. Therefore, to see fruit, loquats in Dallas need to be under cover.
Most people in the US who have encountered loquat fruit did so in Chinese buffets, where canned loquat in light syrup is extremely popular. That was where I had my first experience with the succulent and slightly crunchy fruit, and rapidly became enthralled with both the flavor and the consistency. Because of its winter-growing habits, fresh loquat is nearly impossible to get north of Austin, but friends there relate the popularity of trees grown in front yards among local kids. The fruit needs to be peeled and pitted, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
In comparison to the fruit, loquat flowers don’t appear to have much going for them. Possibly because of their mutual relations within the family Roseacea, loquat flowers have a rough similarity to apple blossoms. I’m curious about how they fluoresce under ultraviolet light, because between their bland coloration under visible light and the relative lack of scent, they need something else to attract pollinators.
All things considered, a loquat tree makes excellent sense in an indoor butterfly garden. Voluminous flowers, fruit that remains on the tree when ripe, plenty of foliage for hiding…now I just want to know what sorts of caterpillars feed upon the leaves.
While not as rare in captivity as they used to be, the Children’s Museum at Fair Park is still the place to see the world’s largest freshwater turtle in optimum conditions. The alligator snapping turtle, Macrochelys temminckii, ranges through Texas into the Gulf Coast, and occasionally as far north as Dallas. In 1987, I was lucky enough to see a large female in Carrollton, north of Dallas proper, during a very rare land excursion while she was hunting for a nesting site. The Children’s Aquarium alligator snapping turtle is about as big as the one I saw back then, with the help of a rich diet and a lot of care.
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Okay, let’s try a thought experiment. Your organization inherits a classic Art Deco historical building, with a huge adjoining conservatory. The conservatory both looks and shows its age, with leaks coming from the roof and lots of rust along the support pillars, but demolishing it isn’t an option, for a lot of reasons. For reasons of temperature and humidity stabilization, the original conservatory contained collections of various succulents, including aloes and cacti, but they don’t have quite the oomph of rainforest trees reaching for the ceiling. You want to put in plants that fill the enormous conservatory space, but you also have maybe one-quarter the space of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden conservatory. You also want a reason for attendees to visit the conservatory all year round, knowing they’re going to see something new every time they return. So what do you do with the conservatory space?
Well, if you’d answered “Renovate the space with state-of-the-art fixtures and irrigation systems, put in an airlock system to minimize escapes, replant the interior with friendly and impressive flowering and fruiting trees, and turn the whole thing into a gigantic butterfly garden,” congratulations. You did better than I would have. You also thought the same as the Texas Discovery Gardens crews, because they blew out the stops on the design and operation of the facility.
Having seen several butterfly gardens at big facilities as of late, particularly at Moody Gardens in Galveston, it’s surprising to see such a large space turned solely into butterfly garden. Here, though, it works. Entry is from the upper floor of the TDG building, with a long, slow ramp around the periphery of the interior toward ground level. In the process, you get a view of trees, vines, and shrubs from the top, giving a better impression of exactly what butterflies and other flying insects look for when it comes to food and egg-laying sites. As the ramp swings around, it passes through different layers of foliage, revealing unique bloom and leaf patterns. Finally, directly below the entrance is the exit, and if you’re already overloaded, the trip ends there. Or…or you can keep going around, looking for feeding stations, fountains, and the undersides of flowers and leaves usually too low to the ground to appreciate.
Based on the name, you might assume that the main focus of the Children’s Aquarium was on fish. Well, that’s partly true, but the Aquarium has a longstanding reputation for exceptional reptile specimens, both of indigenous Texas species and introduced ones. For example, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans features “Spots”, a leucistic alligator, but the Children’s Aquarium has a full-on albino one.
More to follow…
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Besides its main butterfly garden conservatory, the Texas Discovery Gardens building boasts an extensive interior dedicated both to touring exhibitions and to local art events. At the moment, it also features a semi-permanent set of animal enclosures, transported there from the old Dallas Museum of Natural History. In keeping with the theme, the majority are of indigenous Texas species, such as the Texas coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum), but it contains a contrast between our local and more exotic spider species.
Compared to the beautiful Brazilian tarantula on display, our local tarantula species, 14 of which in Texas, appear both dull and boring. Succumbing to that assumption means missing out on a gentle-tempered, agreeable spider with plenty of fascinating behaviors. Having burned out an extremely intense case of arachnophobia in my teenage years thanks to one, I have a soft spot for all of our local species. Seeing one in captivity brought back a lot of memories, all of them good.
As you may have heard from the newsfeeds, Texas had it a bit rough last weekend. Saturday was a wonderful, sunny, and warm day, with no real warning as to what was coming our way. Sunday started out okay, and promptly took a dive into subfreezing temperatures. By about 3 that afternoon, we had sleet, snow, and ice all over everything. This wouldn’t have been so much of an issue if the Czarina weren’t one of the vendors at the North Texas Irish Festival in Dallas’s Fair Park. By 11:30, vendors facing a drive through the storm were evacuating, the Festival organizers were deliberating alternate plans, attendees were arguing about whether or not they should stick around, and anybody else with any sense stayed at home.
Well, not everyone. Even a terrible day at Fair Park is worth a look around, and with the Czarina already situated with more help than the Sunday crowds justified, she shooed me off to go wander. Since both the Texas Discovery Gardens and the Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park were still open, winter storm or not, Sunday was as good a day to wander around as any.
As with the much-missed Dallas Museum of Natural History and the Science Place, now merged and moved across town into the Perot Museum, the Texas Discovery Gardens and the Children’s Aquarium buildings are holdovers from the 1932 World’s Fair and the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. Considering Fair Park’s status as the sole surviving Art Deco World’s Fair site, both kept the Art Deco theme, even after their extensive renovations during the last decade. This includes the beautiful bas reliefs around the TDG’s main entrance.
As for the inside? Well, you’ll have to keep checking back over the next few days, won’t you?
Posted onMarch 6, 2014|Comments Off on Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park – 1
Dallas’s Fair Park has plenty of surprises that don’t receive the recognition they deserve, and one of the most neglected is the Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park, previously known simply as the Dallas Aquarium. That changed back in the 1990s with the opening of the Dallas World Aquarium in downtown. While nowhere near as large as the World Aquarium, the Children’s Aquarium, now run by the Dallas Zoo, has its own unique charms.
In keeping with the rest of Fair Park, the Aquarium’s build and decoration come from the Art Deco school, most noticeably with the bas reliefs around the front of the building and the two concrete sea horses out front. In my first visit in the very early Nineties, the motif continued through the interior of the building. As mentioned previously, though, the Children’s Aquarium underwent an extensive renovation and remodeling in 2007, and one of the casualties was the baroque aquarium design. At the same time, considering the new displays, it’s an understandable casualty.
Over the next few days, keep checking back for photos: I was fond of the Aquarium in the past, and it’s definitely exceeded itself today.
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As mentioned before, as compared to the 2012 event, this year’s Chinese Lantern Festival takes much better advantage of the locale around Fair Park’s Leonhardt Lagoon. Several returning displays, such as the dinosaurs, are much more accessible, and the crowds don’t bottleneck anywhere near as badly as they did in the Festival’s first year. I haven’t heard anything about this becoming a tradition, but based on both the liveliness of the lantern arrangements and the joyous crowds, I can certainly put in an additional voice recommending that this become as much a Dallas tradition as Celebration in the Oaks is for New Orleans.
Along that line, I need to get my friend Debbie out here one of these days. In the eternal garden war between gnome and flamingo, Debbie is a shameless gnome lover. She already knows my side, and nothing would make me feel better than shoving her nose in the impeccably arranged display at the south end of the lagoon:
Just a bit more to follow…
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Posted onJanuary 18, 2014|Comments Off on Chinese Lantern Festival – The Dragon Boat
The Chinese Lantern Festival in Dallas’s Fair Park has a lot of wonders on display, but arguably the most impressive of all of the displays is the dragon boat in the middle of Leonhardt Lagoon. The lagoon already has a nocturnal mystery, and the contrast between the dark waters of the lagoon and this gigantic neon dragon boat just adds to it in a strange way. Visitors can enjoy it from the shore or, for an additional US$2 fee, they can climb aboard to see the park from a whole new locale.
As a longtime visitor to Fair Park, I can’t help but wonder how the fish and reptiles om the lagoon look upon this gigantic interloper. The various bluegills and other fish seem to appreciate the spectacle, considering how they were jumping in the lagoon as I crossed the bridge to the boat. Most of the water turtles probably ignore it, but the snapping turtles…I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to hear about the occasional big snapper crawling up onto the boat for a quick sunbath on warm days, figuring that they had a cousin watching out for them.
More to follow…
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Posted onJanuary 18, 2014|Comments Off on Chinese Lantern Festival – Hope For the New Year
Finally, the idea to keep the Chinese Lantern Festival open until the beginning of Chinese New Year wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but considering the zodiac display behind the old Science Place building, it makes sense. With preparations for the upcoming Year of the Horse already beginning worldwide, Dallas definitely isn’t skipping out.
Goodbye, snake. Time for the horse to move in.
Meanwhile, out in front of the Year of the Rooster lantern, nobody should be surprised to see the hottie I met earlier that night out in front. I should just marry her or something.
And that about does it for this quickie tour of the Lantern Festival. For North Texas residents, and those considering a trip out this way, the Festival continues until February 17, every night from 5:30 to 9:30. Get out there now before it’s gone, because you’ll need some context for what will undoubtedly be an even larger and more impressive event at the end of 2014.
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Posted onJanuary 16, 2014|Comments Off on Chinese Lantern Festival 2013 Dinosaurs – 6
As mentioned previously, the dinosaur section of the Chinese Lantern Festival has a set of animatronic dinosaurs, for unknown reasons but appreciated nonetheless. While the Apatosaurus may technically be larger, the Tyrannosaurus definitely caught more attention. Half of the fun was watching the kids’ expressions while watching their parents: they all enjoyed the dinosaurs, but the idea of moving, roaring dinosaurs among the lanterns was wondrous but not overly unexpected. Their parents and the other adults, though, just couldn’t stop staring.
Right across the pathway from the big dinosaurs was a trio of fiberglass dinosaur eggs. Two were empty and fitted with entrances for kids to peek out, and the third had this (non-operational) baby tyrannosaur emerging from the top. Unlike the big dinosaurs, this one was accessible by passersby, and I was a little disturbed by how many visitors kept poking its eyes as if it would respond.
I suspect that every photographer secretly hopes for that perfect photobomb, and I finally got mine. Just as I was aiming and focusing, this young lady appeared out of nowhere, hugged the baby tyrannosaur, and then went on to see the other sights. We should all be so lucky to get photobombed by such a charming and considerate individual.
On the other hand, then there was this lump of offal oozing out of one of the empty eggs. Suddenly, we have an explanation for why the dinosaurs became extinct. It’s like walking into the middle of a GWAR concert, isn’t it?
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Posted onJanuary 16, 2014|Comments Off on Chinese Lantern Festival 2013 Dinosaurs – 5
For some reason, the Chinese Lantern Festival has three animatronic dinosaurs alongside the lantern ones, all out roaring and waving at passersby. Not that I’m complaining, because any festival is a good excuse for more robot dinosaurs.
Among other sights, I found this hottie standing by the back door of the old Dallas Museum of Natural History, posing alongside the big mammoth skull still in the old space. I know this was my wedding anniversary, but I took her home anyway: how many second chances would a guy get with someone this wonderful?
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Anyone keeping up with dinosaurian palaeontology knows about some of the spectacular dinosaur finds coming out of China over the last twenty years, so a special assemblage of dinosaur lanterns at the Chinese Lantern Festival in Dallas makes perfect sense. Last year, many of the dinosaur lanterns were jammed into one end of Leonhardt Lagoon, preventing easy viewing. This year, they’re right out in front of the old Dallas Museum of Natural History building, stretching across the west side of the lagoon.
Is this it? Not by a long shot. There’s a lot more to see.
Posted onOctober 31, 2012|Comments Off on The Chinese Lantern Festival at Fair Park – 3
I’d be lying if I said we attended the Chinese Lantern Festival at Fair Park solely for the Czarina, but it’s also mostly true. She wanted to catch this from the moment she heard about it, and I figured “Well, this should be interesting, but it’s for her.” How was I supposed to know that one particularly primordial end of Leonhardt Lagoon would be full of dinosaurs?
As for this first photo, for some reason, the Festival had two animatronic dinosaurs, probably brought out during the Museum of Nature & Science’s move, on display as well. Not only was nobody complaining, but at the end of October, it was actually quite charming.
And for those who now regret not coming out to the Festival while it was running, the Festival was such a success that it re-opens on November 1 and runs until January 6, 2013. I recommend getting out there this weekend, while the weather remains this pleasant. Of course, this being Dallas, we could have this sort of weather holding out until after Christmas, but make plans to visit it early anyway. Maybe next time, I’ll come out there with fully charged batteries in my camera, just so I can photograph the rest of the dinosaurs.
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Posted onOctober 31, 2012|Comments Off on The Chinese Lantern Festival at Fair Park – 3
One of the biggest selling points in the promotion of the Chinese Lantern Festival at Fair Park is that this isn’t a touring exhibition. This was designed specifically for Fair Park, and as such, it has a lot of touches endemic to Texas. Hence, longhorns.
More to follow…
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Posted onOctober 31, 2012|Comments Off on The Chinese Lantern Festival at Fair Park – 2
When the Chinese Lantern Festival opened at Dallas’s Fair Park, the automatic assumption was that this was going to be more like a Japanese lantern festival, with paper lanterns filled with candles being released into the sky. This was more of an ongoing exhibition of what could be done with silk, wire, and lighting. It includes everything from the childlike (a landscape of cartoonish pandas playing and ambling through the undergrowth) to the surreal (a gigantic dragon composed of porcelain plates and cups, outlined in neon). A high point, and the festival is nothing but highlights, is the tremendous lotus in the middle of Leonhardt Lagoon, which opens and closes slowly while frogs on lily pads slowly rotate around it.
More to follow…
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Posted onOctober 31, 2012|Comments Off on The Chinese Lantern Festival at Fair Park – 1
This time of the year gives plenty of reasons to visit the State Fair of Texas, and the Czarina and I finally got out there the Thursday before its closing on October 21. Those who haven’t attended before can’t understand the sheer joy of wandering through Fair Park this time of the year, especially at night. By the end of October, the skies are as clear as they’re ever going to get, adding a particular clarity to everything outside. Neon doesn’t just glow: it snaps. With the air quality comes a certain crispness to both vision and hearing, and it’s perfectly reasonable to just stand in one spot, watching people and events, without ever visiting a single event. I was first exposed to this when I lived across the street in Exposition Park two decades ago, and the sight of the Texas Star ferris wheel in full neon still thrills me to no end.
“I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE, AND I GIVE YOU FIRE!” (photographer unknown)
This year, it was eventful, too. The news of Big Tex, the mascot and symbol of the State Fair, catching fire on October 19 reached an international audience. Some people cried. Others told dark jokes, such as the tale of two fellow Texas icons being caught fleeing the scene and giving their only statement to the police. In my case, thanks to the batteries in my camera dying at the worst possible time, I told myself “Oh, I’ll get a photo of Big Tex at night next year.” Now my biggest regret is that we’ll never see the ultimate in Lone Star daikaiju, with Big Tex going into battle against the Sinclair dinosaurs in Glen Rose.
The real reason to go to the Fair this year, though, was to see the Chinese Lantern Festival, wrapping around both sides of the old Museum of Nature & Science and taking over Leonhardt Lagoon. Let’s just say that anybody seeing the Festival during the day was definitely missing out.
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Posted onJune 27, 2012|Comments Off on Leonhardt Lagoon at Dallas’s Fair Park
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?
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