The Storytelling Place
The remains of an ancient pecan tree mark the spot in a Dallas park that the Comanche people have deemed sacred.
By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers
On a residential street in southeastern Dallas, an ambulance blares its siren and races to some unknown emergency. Several dogs howl in response while someone’s stereo belts out music for a Saturday night party. The sounds of modern life surround our small band of three as we climb out of the car and make our way in the dark to Devon Anderson Park.
Beneath a full summer moon, we’ve come to see and experience a natural site deemed sacred by Comanche people. The Storytelling Place, as it’s called, lies within the Great Trinity Forest, one of the largest urban hardwood forests in the nation. Here, roughly 6,000 acres of woods — a mixed palette of Texas buckeyes, pecans, walnuts, oaks, ash, persimmons, redbuds, cottonwoods and willows — thrive near the Trinity River and its tributary, the Lower White Rock Creek. Archeological sites found within the forest indicate human occupation dating back more than 10,000 years.
To reach tonight’s destination, we must hike a short distance along a footpath that meanders through shadowy trees, vines and brush.
“This reminds me of the novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the children walk into a wardrobe and enter a magical land on the other side,” says ethnologist Linda Pelon, our guide for the evening. “Here, you enter through a little neighborhood park, and on the other side you find this place.”
As we continue our trek, the raucous calls of cicadas and tree frogs reverberate high in the trees. Along the way, we carefully cross two shallow ravines dotted with small stones. It’s not long before we’re standing atop a bowl-shaped indentation in white rock that seems to glow in the soft moonlight.
We’ve arrived at the Storytelling Place.
Pelon, who’s lived near the Great Trinity Forest since the late 1970s, first became interested in Native Americans while researching for a master’s thesis at the University of Texas in Arlington in 1993. “Each of us had to do a project on Indians,” says Pelon, who now teaches anthropology and history at McLennan Community College in Waco. “I wanted to study the Caddo because I thought they were in this area, but someone had already picked them. So I chose Comanches, and I’ve researched them ever since.”
Ironically, her graduate studies brought her back home to the Great Trinity Forest, a biologically rich region where nomadic Comanches camped and traded in the early to mid-1800s. One of the first remnants of Comanche life that Pelon recognized in the area was a marker tree — sometimes called a “turning tree” — in city-owned Gateway Park. The trunk of the large pecan tree (later estimated to be approximately 290 years old) was growing unnaturally in a half-moon shape from its roots, then upward.
From conversations with Comanche elders and other native people, Pelon knew that when Comanches wanted to mark a campsite or special place, they would stake the top of a young hardwood tree to the ground, causing it to arch, then grow vertically. Comanche visitors who later came to see the old pecan agreed with Pelon.
As a result, in 1997 the Comanche Nation proclaimed the Gateway Park Marker Tree as a “living monument to our historic presence” in Texas. A year later, the ancient pecan tree, already damaged and weakened with age, was destroyed by a Memorial Day storm. Almost magically, the tree produced a final crop of robust pecans before dying. Someday, Pelon hopes that a pecan sapling — propagated by the American Forests Historic Tree Program — will be planted and ceremonially “turned” near the remains of its ancestor, which is still protectively fenced in Gateway Park.
Earlier on this warm evening, Pelon escorted us to another part of the Trinity Forest long ago favored by Comanches. From the Scyene Overlook, we gazed across treetops that reach to the far southern horizon.
“High places like this are sacred, too, because they’re closer to heaven,” Pelon told us. “Comanches didn’t use high places for ordinary things. Plus, medicinal plants grow close by, and there’s a stream, too, all important for Comanche spiritual and medicine traditions. Warriors may have also used this overlook for smoke signaling.”
Next, we hiked along an adjoining trail that took us through thick stands of Eastern red cedars, another necessary component of Comanche life. “Comanche visitors to our forest have told me that their Texas ancestors preferred using red cedars as lodge poles because they grow straight and tall,” Pelon explained. “They also smell wonderful and naturally repel insects.” With age, the beautiful reddish-brown bark of a red cedar separates into long, fibrous strips, which gives the tree a soft-looking appearance.
Though a jet roared high above us and we could hear the muffled sounds of traffic, the surrounding terrain still felt wild, primitive and untouched by time. Several times, the woods gave way to open meadows that teemed with native grasses, flowers and vines.
And then we came upon the pecan trees — massive, towering, magnificent wonders of nature whose diameters dwarf any we’d seen before. Some, Pelon said sadly, will likely be cleared to make way for Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s new light rail that will follow the old Southern Pacific Railroad track, originally laid in the 1880s.
The pecans, as well as many venerable black walnut trees, were growing here back when pioneer James Beeman and his large clan — major players in the establishment of Dallas — settled east of White Rock Creek. John Neely Bryan, who founded the city around 1842, married Beeman’s niece, Margaret.
Pelon also told us about nearby Joppa, an 1870s freedman’s community where descendants still live. Along Joppa’s 18 short streets are 19 churches and surviving shotgun homes (narrow, one-story dwellings without halls).
About a decade ago, the nonprofit White Rock Heritage District was formed to protect, preserve and promote the area’s rich history and unique flora and fauna. Volunteers with the group are currently working with the Comanche Nation to place the district on the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property.
White Rock’s eligibility for inclusion will be strongly tied to this spot in the forest where we’re now standing in the moonlight. By day, the Storytelling Place resembles little more than rocky slopes of limestone, edged with oaks, junipers and brush. Through the years, few people have paid much attention to the place or its historical importance.
When Comanche descendants visited in 2002, however, they quickly perceived the location’s past ties to their cultural and oral traditions. The reasons for this were many: The site lies above and apart from camping areas; and the limestone itself has significant meaning (for instance, Comanches used limestone tools to clean hides). Moreover, moonlight at the naturally occurring amphitheater would have illuminated storytellers and their facial expressions.
Those stories, passed orally from generation to generation, perpetuate Comanche customs and history as well as aid in the training of children. They also translate how Native Americans believe that the universe is bound together through spirits that inhabit everything — plants, animals, humans, water and the Earth itself.
Pelon says that many of their stories feature a giant owl who lives in the moon and flies down, sometimes to eat the people. Raccoons, foxes and other creatures of the forest play tricks on the giant owl in an attempt to save the people. “The animals in those stories are still here — coyotes, armadillos, raccoons, hawks,” Pelon says.
Within the coming year or so, an edge of the Storytelling Place also will be carved away to make room for the future commuter train. At this site, DART officials have agreed to construct a retaining wall of limestone that will blend with the natural setting. During construction, the agency also will try to preserve as much existing vegetation as possible. Trees of “exceptional quality or size” that are damaged or removed will be replaced.
Those assurances, however, mean little to Pelon, who has worked tirelessly to preserve the Storytelling Place.
“I once read a memorable quote that has stuck with me,” she reflects in the moonlight. “It said that stories live in the world, and sometimes they choose to inhabit people. If you honor a story, then it will become your teacher.”
For a few moments more, we stand atop the Storytelling Place, admire the stars and talk quietly. Then it’s time to go back, say our goodbyes and merge once again with modern life.
Later, we will write the story that now lives within us and release it back into the world so others may know, too, about a surviving remnant of both natural and cultural history that’s tucked away in Dallas’ Great Trinity Forest.
It will be our way of honoring the Storytelling Place.