Wild Swans in Arkansas

Magness Lake
In early January, 1991, in the skies somewhere north of Arkansas, three juvenile swans were caught in a snowstorm and became separated from their flock. Despite their 7-foot wingspans and powerful wing beats, they were blown far off the normal course of their migration path. That evening, nearing exhaustion, they heard the calls of geese who had settled for the night onto the sheltered waters of a small lake outside Heber Springs. The swans came down to rest and recuperate from their ordeal.

The next day, 4 birdwatchers happened to drive by the lake and when one of them called out in surprise at what he saw, the others didn't believe him. Wild swans had not been seen in Arkansas for at least 80 years so their doubts were justified. However, their sharp-eyed friend convinced them to stop and look for themselves. When they walked back and spotted the 3 swans, they were astonished. "Those aren't Trumpeter swans, are they?" As if on cue, one of the birds called out and there was no doubt. The loud, trumpet-like sound which gives them their name cannot be mistaken for anything else. For a few days anyway, the endangered Trumpeter Swan, the largest fowl in North America and the rarest of swans was back in Arkansas.

The owner of the lake and surrounding farmland, Perry Lindner, for a number of years had been feeding corn to the wintering waterfowl who came to Magness Lake. When he came out several days later, he saw the new visitors so he spread extra handfuls of corn along the shore near them. The hungry birds eagerly ate all he put out. They enjoyed their new home and the free corn so much that instead of staying just a few days, they didn't leave until February 24th.

Nobody expected the swans to return after that first visit. Evidently they liked Magness Lake so much though that not only did they return on Christmas Day, they brought several friends. They were then joined in January by a female and her mate who had been banded in Minnesota. This time the group stayed until the last day of February. The next year, the same group returned and this time the banded female and her mate brought 3 cygnets (juvenile swans) with them. Since then, the swans have taken a break on their way south and returned every year bringing mates, family members and friends. More than 150 swans now stop at Magness Lake and surrounding ponds for several winter months to rest and replenish with the deer corn people bring to feed them.

By a quirk of fate, where once there were no swans  in the whole state, there are now many and the people who make the effort can stand within a few feet of North America's largest, most beautiful waterfowl. It's an experience you will probably never forget.



Ozymandias Legs On The Texas Plains

Standing out in the vast, flat plains of west Texas, most of the towns are small and the highest point is the Dairy Queen sign. Eleven miles outside of Amarillo though stands something totally incongruent with that flatness - a giant pair of disembodied legs, all that is left of an ancient statue. A few feet away from the barbed-wire enclosed legs is a Texas State Historical Marker. The inscription on the marker states in part: In 1819, while on a horseback trek over the great plains of New Spain, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary came across these ruins. Here Shelley penned 'the poem Ozymandias.' The visage (or face) of the statue was damaged by students from Lubbock after losing to Amarillo in a competition. A stone cast of it will be replaced when it is ready. The original is now on display in the Amarillo Museum of Natural History. Souvenir hunters have scraped off the bottom of the pedestal. Archaeologists have determined it was as Shelley described it.

You are standing looking at a genuine relic of an historical time! At least, that's what you are supposed to think.

In 1996, Stanley Marsh 3 (he uses the number "3" as he feels the Roman numeral "III" is pretentious), the creator of the infamous Cadillac Ranch and other local oddities he referred to as "a legalized form of insanity" commissioned local artist Lightnin' McDuff to create a replica of the ruins in Percy's poem. Only working part-time (Lightnin' had a tendency to fall off his scaffold in the wind so he only worked on calm days), the legs were completed 2 years later.

Standing on a base which is 4 feet tall, 10 feet wide and 20 feet long, the left leg rises 24 feet in the air and the right leg stands 34 feet high. The whole thing is made of concrete, but the legs were made to look like they were carved from sandstone and very old. Lightnin' said, "Stanley wanted them to look like they were weathered and old and had been through prairie fires and storms and one thing or another."

To complete the illusion, prankster Marsh also commissioned a fake Texas Historical marker to mislead the curious. The marker states 3 erroneous claims - the first is that these legs were the inspiration for Shelly's poem, but they were obviously built many years later. It also states the "shattered visage" was damaged as a casualty between the Amarillo and Lubbock schools. In fact, Lightnin' never made a face to accompany the legs. And last, the nonexistent visage does not reside in the Amarillo Museum of Natural History because, just like the face, the museum does not exist. Amarillo has never had a Museum of Natural History. The historical marker is a close enough replica of the real thing though that the Texas Historical Commission reports they often get inquiries from the unsuspecting as to why the marker is not listed on their official web site.

Much like the Cadillac Ranch, the statue and fake marker are frequent targets of graffiti artist. Several times a year the unsightly paint is sandblasted away, but it doesn't take long for the vandal artists to return. Stopping by on a recent road trip, we were totally alone the 30 minutes we were there. The only sound was the cold wind steadily blowing from the north and a disinterested cow standing in the field chewing its cud. We found the marker to be so covered in paint that it was almost impossible to read. There is an abundance of litter around. The statue is rather remote and isolated and is evidently enjoyed as a place of romantic encounters. Among the empty liquor bottles, beer cans and fast food wrappers, we saw 2 bra's (both white), a pair of red thongs and a pair of pink bikini panties, one blouse, a pair of girl's shorts, a pair of jeans and an unopened condom. Interestingly, we saw no men's clothing items. 

Lightnin' McDuff
Not unlike the Egyptian King Ramesses II (Ozymandias is Ramesses in Greek) who filled the Valley of the Kings with monuments to himself, Stanley Marsh 3 filled Amarillo with monuments to his humor. When asked why he had the legs built and placed in a large open field, he said Shelley's poem is about the futility of monuments so he built a monument to it.

Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said, "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Silent Witness - Halfway Oak Tree

Trees have been used as landmarks, meeting places and for protection from harsh weather. They have provided wood for homes and church's and provided cooling shade in the hot summer. In times of war they have been used as mustering places, scouting nests, and sniper's perches. In times of peace, churches and courts have been held under their limbs and sometimes, those same limbs were used to provide frontier justice. Over 500 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue and Europeans first came to America, some of the saplings from then are still alive, silent witnesses to history. If only they could speak.

The Halfway Oak Tree next to Hwy 183
One of these trees, an gnarled, old live oak, lives on the windswept plains 13 miles south of Breckenridge, Texas. For miles around there's no other tree so it's hard to miss. The tree got its name from its location: halfway between Breckenridge and Cisco. In the 1800's it served as a halfway rest stop on the original Fort Griffin to Stephenville stage coach passage. Noted on maps as early as 1858, it provided travelers a refuge for centuries.

in 1867, Fort Griffin was one of the frontier forts built to defend settlers against Indians and outlaws. The town of Fort Griffin, named for the fort but called "The Flat" by everyone, was established nearby. This lawless frontier outpost attracted many infamous characters of western lore such as Mollie McCabe and John Wesley Hardin. Lawlessness was so bad that the Flat was eventually placed under martial law and soldiers ran the outlaws and troublemakers out of town. As the bad guys rode south, they no doubt stopped under the old oak tree just long enough to rest their horses for a few minutes. In 1877, Wyatt Earp came through The Flat hot on the trail of a fleeing criminal. Doc Holiday was coming to help his friend apprehend the scofflaw and Wyatt left word for Doc that he would wait for him at the Halfway Oak. The next day, Doc caught up with Wyatt at his camp beside the tree.
In the oil boom of the 1920s, thousands of prospectors rushed into Breckenridge. Photographs from that time show almost nothing but wooden oil derricks stretching to the distant horizon. The oil boom brought railroads and the tracks for one line were laid less than 200 feet west of the tree. The tracks are long gone now, but the Half-Way Oak still stands.

Over the many years of its life, the tough old tree has suffered through drought, ice storms, misguided pruning, an accidental poisoning and several car crashes, one of them fatal. (It must be rather embarrassing for there to be only one tree for miles around and somehow you crashed your car into it.) In the 1970s the tree was scheduled to be removed for the widening of Highway 183, but the citizens of Breckenridge banded together, refusing to allow the tree to be cut. Instead of living history being destroyed, the road was routed around it and a few picnic tables and a nice highway pull-off were added, allowing the Half-Way Oak to continue to provide a welcome respite for travelers.