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OUTDOORS: Swamp Sojourn

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

The river swamp beckons somehow. You're drawn to it. Forget peril and inconvenience: the hidden diamondbacks and the fragile limestone ledges at the edges of sinkholes, the alligator-infested river, the mud that sucks the shoes from your feet, the thorn thickets, the pathless byways leading nowhere except deeper into fetid, humid darkness. You simply must go there.

You see the swamp from the shoulder of the old dirt road where you pulled over and parked. You see the cypresses, the palmettos, the old dead tree where vultures roost. You smell the moist, dank earth that lies hidden beneath composting layers of decaying vegetative carpet. You hear things: raucous cackling from the heron rookery, footfalls made by hoof and paw, the gurgle of the far-off stream where it rounds the bend and flows through the old logjam. It is two or three hours before dusk. You must go in. The swamp beckons.

You must enter the swamp for two simple important reasons. One, the love of the outdoors is in your blood, has been there, in fact, for as long as you can remember. Two, you know John Muir and Henry David Thoreau were right. There exists, without question, a "necessity of wildness," an innate need to experience nature on her own terms, and in everyone, whether he knows it or not, a deep-seated desire to "live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life," if only for a brief soul-cleansing moment. For now, potential hazards and unfamiliarity do not matter. You must step into this wild, primordial world and be the only member of your species present there.

You slam the door of your vehicle, too loudly, with something akin to, you fear, irreverence. It is not a good beginning. You desire to covertly blend in. Instead, you've announced your intrusion. But you're not the only intruder. Chinese privet grows in profusion by the roadside. Volunteer daylilies bloom orange in the sunlight. And isn't that a Eurasian tree sparrow in that honeysuckle clump? None of these should be here, either, and at least you won't be staying.

The river flows sluggishly through the swamp in the distance. It is in that direction you step off; gingerly, carefully. The ground is soggy even on the "high" side.

Feral hogs have left their sign behind. Tracks and rooting holes betray their feeding grounds and destructive dining habits. They, too, are invaders and, like the privet and the sparrow, are likely to remain, thwarting all removal efforts. Yet, as you plod onward, trying hard to traverse only the driest ground, you notice that native wildlife abounds here also. Some; the white-tailed deer, the gray squirrels, the great egret, the river otter; you see in the flesh. Others; the fox, the raccoon, the beaver; have left "calling cards," variegated signs of their presence.

Deep in, out of view of the road, there is a huge sinkhole. Its limestone rim is brittle and precarious, but, oh yes, you must venture close and look in. Good place for shade-seeking rattlesnakes, you think. You think correctly. There are two. You watch them awhile, but they don't move. You ease slowly away.

You're close to the wading-bird rookery now. They are indeed herons, little blues, to be exact. The nests are untidy and the chicks, by human standards, ugly. You're not a mother heron, though. Shouldn't harbor such prejudicial opinions.

There's a hornets' nest in a big sparkleberry. Ugh! You'll take rattlesnakes any day. The logjam in the river is a rest stop for terrapins, at least four different species. You wish you were better at telling them apart. A huge alligator cruises a little ways downstream and the sight cheers you. Gators have fascinated you since 1970.

On the riverbank, it comes clear that dusk is gathering. You're a poor pathfinder anytime, but after dark you'll have absolutely no clue. Prudently, you turn and retrace your steps.

It is only after you've reached the truck that you notice the mosquito and yellowfly bites on your exposed flesh. You notice, too, that you're tired, your boots are muddy, and your scent in no way resembles a bouquet of violets.

At that, you smile. As the swamp fades to blackness in the twilight, you think again of Muir and Thoreau. They'd look kindly on you now, you surmise.

They'd know you understand.