American Sabbatical 76: 3/22/97
The regrowth woods around Folkstone, Georgia, are rather dramatic. Vertical columns,
the red scaly trunks of the longleaf pines, stand in endless aisles
above acres of waist-high palmetto, spiky clusters of bright green
fans, and the shivering canopy of pompom needles casts dappled
shadows over everything. The peripheral animation driving through
such a stage set makes you tingle. Young plantation pines proving
there can be an organic industrial beauty.
Pines & Palmettos
We followed the brown park signs to the gates of the Okefenokee,
not quite knowing what to expect. I learned how to read immersed
in a make-believe world inked on pages of newsprint: the Pogo
comics. Walt Kelly had conjured an imaginary swamp, full of ludicrous
characters, engaged in a slapstick rendition of politics as usual
in the 1950s. The jokes were over my head, of course, but the
visual comedy and the verbal Dee-light hooked me on words and
hardedge drawings for life. I wore my copies of the Pogo books
to tatters, reading and rereading as new levels of meaning awoke
for me, then Id dug them out when Seth was little, and hed done
the same, to the point of disintegration.
We followed the brown park signs to the gates of the Okefenokee, not quite knowing what to expect. I learned how to read immersed in a make-believe world inked on pages of newsprint: the Pogo comics. Walt Kelly had conjured an imaginary swamp, full of ludicrous characters, engaged in a slapstick rendition of politics as usual in the 1950s. The jokes were over my head, of course, but the visual comedy and the verbal Dee-light hooked me on words and hardedge drawings for life. I wore my copies of the Pogo books to tatters, reading and rereading as new levels of meaning awoke for me, then Id dug them out when Seth was little, and hed done the same, to the point of disintegration.
Kellys Okefenokee was an airy luminous place full of fat giant
cypress and black waters, a barefoot boys paradise. At some level
I expected this real swamp to have winding passages between old
cypress, draped in vines and hung with Spanish moss, alive with
snake and gators and flashes of birdcolor.
Instead there was an entry road through young pines ending in
a lot alongside a small marina basin in a scraggly mix of secondgrowth,
on the edge of a drowned jungle only 60 feet tall at the highest,
and sparse enough to let daylight through everywhere. We debated
renting a tinboat and outboard combo, or a canoe, but opted for
an hour tour so we could pump the guide for info.
The only tour customers at this early hour, we clambered aboard
the blue canopied johnboat and buzzed off into the Suwanee Canal.
The long straight waterway was clogged with family groups in canoes
and rental outboards, lying crossways and anywhichways on the
learning curve. Our guide turned out to be a shy young man from
Indiana who only knew his prepared lines, and could barely be
urged into saying them. Hed been trained to stop the boat before
speaking, so everytime we asked a question hed idle down the
buzzer, and we herked and jerked along the canal.
Along the Canal
Very disconcerting: the Okefenokee has been entirely logged off,
and is now preserved as a past devastation and a future promise.
Along the canal theres a juvenile beauty strip of dense young
cypress, mixed with lesser swamp veg, and four foot gators every
100 yards or so, lying half submerged. All the old giants went
through the mill, a bonanza in cypress never to be seen again.
Now you cant even cut the knees, which poke up their promises
through the lily pads.
Taking a side channel off the canal we crossed wide treeless expanses
of lily and golden club fields. Occasional batteries, or floating
masses of vegetation that look like terra firma, but would swallow
you up, are lodged at random. Grotesque solitary cypress clothed
in Spanish moss stood here and there, with great blue herons nesting,
egrets wingbeating by, and osprey diving. The sun began to bite
on our exposed surfaces, and the last imaginings of cool corridors
under ancient trees evaporated.
A new feeling arose. While a lingering sadness for the grandeur
of primal America stands wrapped in vines and moss on the edges
of this place, it is still a wonderland of exuberant greenery
and amphibious wriggling. It felt glorious to be in a humid sun-soaked
place in late March, a gentle breeze drying the sweat, and no
bugs! All the city intensity and highway haste sank down into
dark water until only its eyes were exposed.
March 22 Okefenokee Swamp
WHO? tourists, swampsquatters, loggers, alligator hunters
WHAT? 750 square mile swamp
WHERE? on the Georgia-Florida border
HOW? boat or canoe
TOPICS: swamp ecology, forestry, logging, sustainable tourism
QUESTIONS: What kind of a swamp the Okefenokee?
I was fooled. I expected huge trees blocking the sun. Dark expanses
of stagnant water with occasional shafts of sunlight. A dark,
heavy, humid environment with thick air. Maybe its more like
that in the summer. In March the swamp was lovely. We had a cool
breeze. The sun is hot, but we were mostly in shade. The bugs
apparently get bad after May, especially the yellow flies I was
told, but I got more bitten in downtown Charleston. The trees
just arent that big, because the whole area was logged off. So
the swamp was sunny and open.
The eastern gateway to the Okefenokee (near Folkston, Georgia)
is a drive through a pine forest, a pine and palmetto forest.
The palmettos are low palm plants - maybe three feet high. As
undergrowth around the big pines they are gorgeous. We drove in
to the information center on the old Suwanee Canal where we took
an hour long boat tour. The dry land around the information
site which looks like ordinary lawn, is all based on sandbags.
Groups of canoeists were gearing up. There are several boat loops
through the swamp. You can book overnight guided tours too. Our
tour boat had to navigate around perhaps thirty two-person canoes.
The guide grumbled. We motored slowly down the canal for several
miles. The woods were all small trees (cypress and black gum and
others) and the land was islands that the guide said you fall
through if you try to walk on them. On each side the swamp opened
up into prairies, vast expanses of grass and waterlilies and
mosses. We saw white ibis and great herons (a nest too) and -
yep- alligators of various sizes, near and far.
Gators are now threatened rather than endangered (Im not
sure how this is determined). I didnt realize that they live
80-100 years. When we returned our guide said we should go see
George up by the visitors center. Sure enough, George - an elderly
fourteen footer - was sunning himself. We saw another gator on
our later boardwalk tour of the swamp who lazily swam across a
pool and then chomped a fish. It was a little more eerie to see
an eight foot alligator casually coming out of the ditch by the
road as we drove by. I was glad we werent bicycling as others
were. There is a current news story about a gator killing a toddler
here in Florida. Everyone here stresses how unusual this is(!).
There were many plants blooming in the swamp - golden club was the most obvious. The visitors center lists dozens of flowers and scores of animals in the swamp.
A short drive from the visitors center is the Chesser homestead,
which is the preserved domicile of the last "swampers" to leave
the area (in 1959) The Chessers lived in their house for a hundred
years. The first Mr. Chesser came down to the swamp to avoid a
homicide charge in northern Georgia (the house guide said many
folks ended up on the swamp for similar reason). The Chessers
built the house out of local wood, raised several huge families,
and made a living raising corn and selling sugar cane syrup from
cane they raised. The homestead is well preserved and looks much
like a Maine woods cabin. It is made out of cypress boards with
a tin roof.
There is a main room, three bedrooms, large kitchen with attached
porch and various outbuildings - corn crib, buggy house, syrup
house, sheds, necessary. There is also a cane breaking machine
that grinds the stalks as a draft animal moves around the press
in a circle. There is no insulation or plumbing. The house stands
in a clearing covered with white sand which they kept swept and
clean. The sand was to dissuade or at least highlight snakes (there
are five poisonous ones in the area). According to the guide,
the family was almost entirely self-sufficient during its century
in the Okefenokee. The house feels as though the owners have just
stepped out, the last Mrs. Chesser moved into town but came out
to see to the homesteads accuracy and daughters still visit.
We came to the Okefenokee because my husband was raised reading Pogo, the 1950s comic strip set in the swamp. Its vivid characters - Pogo, Howland Owl, Churchy La Femme, Albert, Mamselle Hepzibah - are all animals of the Okefenokee. Even if you havent read the comic, you probably know some of the maxims from Pogo which are now part of American popular culture ("We have met the enemy and he is us!"). On a bright beautiful day in March, the Okefenokee seemed like a great place for the Pogo bunch to live.
Jes fine, sez bug.
After we visited George and the swampsquatters homestead we walked
out the boardwalk to the observation tower, pausing at the shaded
benches to sketch or simply soak in the landscape. Familiar and
unfamiliar mosses and ferns, lolling turtles, and the impenetrable
thickets neckdeep in water. We came away cooled right out.
And quartered around Jacksonville by sideroad. I'd gotten picked
up by the police there in 1964.. turns out the guy I was sharing
an underpass shade with was an escaped con.. and it had been an
ugly blot then, so I wasnt eager to revisit it. Its outer exurbs
are surprisingly attractive, however. It may help that weve driven
from April into June in the last two hundred miles. Summer flowers
on the shoulders, blackeyed susans, thistle (yellow thistle,
blue variety, one guide said), chicory, and hosts of strangers.
All the leaves out.
Entrained in a squadron of Harleys thundering east to St. Augustine, I admired the phalanx discipline these stormtrooper-helmeted leathermen were practicing, like a platoon on a highway mission. Up and over the wide St. Johns waterway we picked up the William Bartram Memorial Highway, catching glimpses of houseboat paradise through the trees and efflourescence.
Bartrams journals of his explorations through Georgia and North Florida in the 1770s are fabulous accounts of a garden of Eden. Or a Xanadu. In fact Coleridge copped some of Bartrams descriptions verbatim for his Kubla Khan (Bartrams accounts were published in England by the benefactors who funded his trips). Bartram listed catalogs of new botanical species and varieties, and recounted frequent encounters with bull alligators, which attacked his canoe as a competitor, roaring up at him their chests high in the air. He laconically observed that they had as much right to the place as he did, and if they ate him it would only be nature fulfilling itself. Nobody in his wake shared those sentiments.
The 18th century Philadelphia naturalist (trained by his father, a colleague of Franklin) also traveled the dry grounds hereabout, usually in the company of colonial horse traders who grazed their herds on the lush grasses growing on the limestones of Northern Florida, and traded with the "civilized" Indians. This is still horse and cattle country. We skirted white-fenced horse ranches and grazing bovines under solitary tulipshaped shade trees.
Our platoon growled over the waterway and into the Saturday jam in St. Augustine: scorched and chlorinated vacation Florida, going full throttle. A shock after idling along woodland alleys. There was an arts and crafts show sucking crowds into the city center, and we nosed along in the creeping chrome, trying to eyeball the old Spanish architecture through the press. Wed carelessly assumed we could find a campsite on the beach down here in Bartrams wilderness, but a bumpertobumper ride along the shore put paid to that idea. It was wild enough, but reservations were weeks in arrears, if you could find parking.
Back in downtown we found a space behind a magnificent converted
resort hotel, now home to a college. Do they have Spring break
year-round? Then we perused the show. Our friend Sheldon, who
lives just down the pike had said we should show up this weekend
for a big annual art show, and we thought we might find him here.
We hadnt expected to be this far south so soon when we'd spoken
him last, and there was no answer at his digs, so our wandering
through the mobs singing "SHELDON?," as though selling some exotic
fruit, was particularly hopeful now we knew the beaches were staked
out. All we found were watercolor landscapes, wildly colored pottery,
silver jewelry, polished hardwoods, and broiled flesh stuffed
into too little clothing. Ah the jiggle and thrust of the tropics.
We backed off the mart and found shady spots to draw some of the details. I pitched down by a streetcorner across from a mission-style church, all orange tile and ornate woodwork and sienna stucco, while the overheated vacationers accordioning at the stoplights honked and cursed and screamed blessings like a Manhattan bedlam. The laidback South wed been meandering through this was not.
We proved that when the cheapest motels in the subcontinent we
over $50. Frazzled and half scalded we plunged into the chlorine
and soaked our heads till the buzzing stopped. Peggy had actually
braved a chilly pool the night before, which hadnt tempted me,
even for bragging potential. But I was ready to rub noses in it
this time. Is it still cold up there, Mainers?
As the daylight smoldered down, a bronco-load of kids from NY laced on their rollerblades and began figure skating in the motel lot. Sure looks like fun. A few stars came out, and just the faintest smudge of the comet our northern E-mail has been foretelling. Then it and the other brightnesses were swallowed in spreading clouds.