SMU's Bonnie Jacobs Is Searching for History Beyond Ancient in the Trinity River Bottoms

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

Bonnie Jacobs studies plant fossils found in ancient rocks and deeply cored soil samples -- bits of ancient leaf, specks of prehistoric pollen, other fragments that provide scientific windows into what was going on in a given spot thousands and even millions of years ago. Best known for 10 years' work in the Mush Valley 100 miles northeast of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Jacobs, a professor at SMU, is now bringing her expertise to the soggy bottoms of the Trinity River in Dallas.

She and an intrepid crew of graduate students -- Jewel Lipps, Shannon Hart and Hadley McPherson -- are working to create a picture of the land along the Elm Fork that will show what was going on there through recorded history and back into prehistoric times. Working in the area northeast of the former Texas Stadium site, Jacobs and her team hope to come up with a real-life portrait of the land over time, showing not merely what plants were growing here but also what may have been going on in the overall environment, as reflected by changes in plant life.

As it is, the history of the entire Trinity River bottoms is mainly a matter of conjecture and guesswork. The forested area along the river from southern Dallas to the Elm Fork is often described as the largest remaining urban hardwood forest in Texas, but no one knows for sure if the Great Trinity Forest, as it is called now, existed before European settlement, or if it is in fact a product of 19th century settlement and more recent neglect. Jacobs and her team are working in conjunction with GroundWork Dallas, a federally funded program coordinating several research and educational projects along the river. Her team is doing purely scientific research, but GroundWork has a more immediate goal in mind -- turning the Trinity River bottoms into a vast ecological classroom and laboratory. Already, serious scientific work is going on shoulder-to-shoulder with outdoor classrooms that GroundWork puts on for school kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The hope is that one day, instead of being shunned and ignored as a wasteland, the land along the Trinity will draw people from far afield who will come to seek its secrets and wonders, to experience what Jacobs calls "a great natural resource in the heart of Dallas." Who knew there was such a thing?