I was driving through a vast Louisiana lowland of twisted bottomland oaks, hickories and maples. I knewthat, absent flood controls, the Mississippi River should have six feet of silt-laden water above my head right here. The gray stands of dismal hardwoods stood mute in the leaden sky, monochromatic and ghostly, palmetto understory, leafless vines clawing up rough trunks but punctuated by the occasional splash of greenery from live oaks.
Feeling these senses of déjà vu, of fearful childhood love for the complex richness and quality of winter light in the bottomland tracts, it is no wonder I ultimately became an ecologist. Look! There is a stand of house-high hardwood regeneration that is ideal for woodcock winter cover; the carpet of greenbriar will surely host tunnels of cottontails and edges will be fox squirrel habitat. White-tailed deer will browse here each evening. Watch for rutting bucks running does and their fawns out of such thickets through the wide open bottoms even midday.
This cannot be bypassed, so I have to stop to reconnect on a walk down the bayou bank where I feel the grit of sandy loam meld into the greasy leaf-covered surface as I move away from the bayou and into the backwater areas. It is a familiar old feeling of water oak and persimmon leaves preventing the worst of the gumbo clay from sticking to boots and pants but ultimately, I get muddy and my inseams cake with a smear familiar as perspiration. A pause under a live oak, you know, the kind plantations used to provide early and late shade and shelter for horses, mules and promenading white ladies on the saturated covers of torrid bodice rippers. But these wild grown live oaks are not majestically spreading like their open-grown brethren in coastal marshes parks and lawns. These are gnarly upward growing with the occasional fern-covered horizontal limb. They, the producers of succulent white oak acorns and their excellent hawk-protection creates a haven for bottomland fox squirrels. Just then, a grizzled reddish fox squirrel decided to “Churr, churrrrrrrr. . . “ at me then race away triggering a most unexpected reaction.
Here I stand in muddy dress shoes 2,500 miles from my Canadian home, the squirrel season is over, I don’t have a firearm, and I am wearing a dress shirt for a Lafayette meeting this afternoon. Yet, I suddenly wanted to kill that squirrel. Badly. He stopped and lashed his long tail at me, taunting, sending a squirrely “FUCK YOU!!” from his perch. As an 18-year old I would be bracing a .22 rifle against this green ash to send a bullet for a bloody neat head shot. Alas, here I have to just stand, smile, and take it. Willing but impotent. Frankly, it was a surprising reaction from a 60-year old Canadian visitor.
As I walked back toward the rental car on the highway, a little uncertain of my way but knowing it was somewhere up-gradient, I smiled and shook my head. I thought I had expunged that killer instinct. I am an old sedate conservationist now who busies himself with environmental education, analyses of reclamation, gardening, planning, teaching, student supervision, policy, blah blah blah . . . all the abstractions and constructs of social systems and civilization, or as Ed Abbey called it “syphilization”. I tipped my hat to that pissed-off fox squirrel for carrying me back in time and for fanning a quiet ember of the predator that still burned in me.
There have been other awakenings reminding me I am, at my core, organically connected to the ecosystem as both a giver and a harvester. Shortly after arriving in Edmonton, Alberta a friend and I were walking across a city park with my Labrador retriever Dixie; suddenly a leggy white-tailed jackrabbit bounded up at our feet and pogo-ed off jinking left and right. My walking companion cautioned me to restrain Dixie but I was mentally urging her to catch the hare and I was overwhelmed with an urge to give chase myself. I love the squirrel, I admire the jackrabbit just as I love watching golf course geese gabble and tip. These are all carabineers to a wild core that is part of me. They are the guy wires that hold me in position in this world of artifice like a puppet restrained from my atavistic urges. Sure, the instinct to act was stronger, less diluted when I was an uncomplicated child but they are still a strong tenet of my being. I am connected to the natural world. When all the dross and clutter of living as a tamed, some might say gelded, member of society is blown away, what remains is a man who is linked to slipping clay, cool elm bark, shuddering rainfall, brutal sunlight, and dashing auburn fur in the treetops.
The north is good to me. The animals are large and numerous, the spaces vacuous, the choice landscapes lightly peopled and it is easy to slip into solitude for days on end so the wild can seep in. It is a beautifully immersive sensation that I cultivate and count on each fall. Still, we imprint as certainly as a pheasant chick, thus, I will remember eating Louisiana’s wild persimmons and watching raccoons hunting stream mussels; of sensing the shush of twilight woodcock spiral fluttering back to roost and the air-rending of pre-dawn mallards over tree tops. These things give me calm breath and port me to my origins. They are my sense of place that can be forgotten then strikingly materialized by cautious deer steps in dry leaves. This makes an arrow rattle on its rest and the heart beats thrum my ears.
The southern bottomlands made me and are still hooked to my heart as surely as a moose quarter rides a gambrel in my garage. Some things we have no choice about. I born to this clay to a mother from the Mississippi Delta, I reached adulthood on the rich red alluvium of the Red River bottoms; and my father was a chigger-chewed parent from the longleaf pineywoods. I come by it naturally and an earth-passion runs in my veins, sequestered in the nephrons and neurons of my thoughts. All it takes is that belligerent squirrel bark or that jackrabbit vapor to bring me suddenly back. I thank them. Maybe I worship them. They keep me honest and committed to the energy of sun, rain and soil, the natural processes of plant growth to create community structure and the miraculous emergent property of wild things at the top of a mature and functional system . They make me small and humble even as they make personal relevance through time a challenge.
My car starts with the push of a button, the radio blares Cajun music and I taste the tepid drive-through coffee and I ease back into the world of asphalt, cell coverage and controlled climate. However, l know that chuckling tail-lashing beauty is still out there and I am comforted.