War and Redemption in an East Texas Forest

In honor of my wonderful friend Kelby Dupriest’s birthday today, I’m reprinting the following post that first appeared on “The Great Rattlesnake Highway.”

Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost, That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly, wash again and ever again this soiled world. — Walt Whitman

Caddo Lake, 2016

Caddo Lake is a big, relatively shallow body of water on the Texas-Louisiana border. Its backwaters are a maze of waterways tracing through big stands of cypress and water tupelo, trees whose trunks broaden at the base and are draped in the bromeliad that is referred to as “Spanish moss.” Just south of the lake, on the Texas side, is a mixed pine and hardwood forest that is set aside as the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge. But its history involves much more than a quiet pine forest with the calls of birds in the tree tops. It is a place where the forest is gradually recovering from a time when a workshop of war was built among the trees.

Caddo Lake in the drought year of 2011
Backwaters of the lake, in 2016, with an egret hunting among the trees

In the war years of the last century, the Army acquired 8,493 acres south of the lake, and in 1942, the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant began making the explosive TNT. During the 1950’s the plant made rocket motors and incendiary bombs, and this continued during the Viet Nam war. In 1988 it was the site where some U.S. missiles were destroyed as part of the INS treaty, beginning to de-escalate the arms race with Russia. Finally, in 1997 the Army indicated that the plant was no longer needed, and the land was transferred to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service the next year. Some places where the worst pollution had occurred were designated Superfund sites by EPA, and efforts were made to remove toxic chemicals. And so, we are really only about twenty years out from the time when concrete buildings scattered through the woods gave birth to bombs and rocket propellant.

Concrete pillars march through the woods, 2016

Clint King and I first visited the refuge in 2011, during a terrible drought. It was very surreal to walk along the partially overgrown paved lanes through the forest, running across a big open expanse of concrete where some building appeared to have been razed, and then find a small concrete shell of a building, or maybe a series of upright walls. Walking through beautiful pines and sweetgum trees, we would emerge on yet another tombstone from the war effort – sometimes they were concrete pillars that would have held some tank full of who knows what, or a hollow bunker where a couple of bats roosted. And some areas had a vague pesticide smell, places behind a fence with a sign that said, “restricted area.”

March 2, 2019

Yesterday, Kelby Dupriest and I visited the place again, a road trip for a restorative walk in the woods. Caddo was the best of our regional options, with less chance of rain and more moderate temperatures, and the wildlife refuge is certainly an interesting place. I have seen it as a place struggling to hold on to its integrity as a beautiful upland forest and stately cypress wetland. It seemed to me to be a place out of the Twilight Zone: “Picture, if you will, a quiet southern forest, but a forest that hides secrets.” The wind sighing through pine trees, the soft carpet of pine needles, and the ferns and mosses, all make the sudden appearance of concrete skeletons from a bomb factory all the more jarring. These structures do not look like they housed the precise and efficient mechanisms of 20th century technology; they look crude and rough, like something shamefully hidden away in the woods.

The forest that surrounds the ruins

Walking through the winter woods with Kelby, I also remembered that the scars from the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant should not blind me to the beauty of the place. There were signs that spring will soon return to this forest. Trees are starting to bud, and in places there were clusters of white blossoms. On the thick branches of a big oak, mosses and ferns grew in a little garden where rain and fog and humidity make it possible for them to survive, their roots digging into the tree bark. Life goes on, and because of it, things begin to heal. Despite the things that we may do, this earth is determined to create and sustain life, and to return things to the way they work best, as soil and water, lichens, plants, and animals. Maybe this time the walk was a little more hopeful. The damage was done, and the place isn’t yet healed, but the forest is gradually reclaiming the concrete and the fallen apparatus of war production. Mosses and plants take hold and begin to break it down, and even the poisons might one day be converted and filtered away. A garden is growing where the work of war was once done. Think of it as a place where, year by year and inch by inch, life has the last word. I don’t know how long the forest’s full redemption will require, but someday it will come.

Cedar waxwings, eating the berries of (non-native) privet

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