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Raw Land

Bayou-Diversity (25 November 2018) No doubt landscapes tug on our psyche. Whether a snow-capped Colorado mountain or a shimmering gulf coast beach, our brains react to certain topographies in peculiar ways. We are all different in our feelings toward distinctive terrains – some attract, some are foreboding. For me there is a landscape in northeastern Louisiana that never fails to stir something below the surface of my consciousness. I can put rough boundaries around it – Bayou Macon on the west, Hwy. 65 on the east as it rolls through Lake Providence, Tallulah and on southward to Ferriday. My familiarity with it goes as far north as the Arkansas line and south to the Jonesville area. I can tell you what it consists of and just as importantly, what it does not simply in terms of dirt. It is not made up of the sifted-flour loess soil on the Macon Ridge nor of the yards-deep topsoil along the higher frontlands of the Mississippi River and adjacent tributaries where cotton grows like a rainforest liana. It is blanketed in a shiny-black soil of clay particles so tiny and sticky that they will adhere to quicksilver when wet, or so it seems. For the last 10,000 years these soils have produced spectacular forests astonishing in productivity and diversity. Remnants of these forests are my eye-candy.

Now days I love to drive through this region in late autumn or early winter. What tugs at me are the dark walls of remaining trees across fields of soybeans, a plant that hurried the demise of these very forests. In the 1980s I watched as platoons of giant bulldozers lined up and pushed the walls back, only stopping when the price of soybeans fell. It is not as if the remaining trees comprise a virgin forest; far from it. A few enormous cypresses, lingering on around secluded lakes because they are hollow and thus not marketable, still twist rays of sunlight into annual rings even after a thousand years of consistent photosynthesis. Most of the other trees germinated after I did, the result of repeated logging operations in the last century. The landscape has known thousands of generations of ivory-billed woodpeckers, squalling cougars, and red wolves the color of Sharkey clay. It has nurtured billions of songbirds, residents and migrants, from the leaf litter upwards through the highest canopy. People too, for millennia, were sustained by the cornucopia behind the wall, and ninety-nine percent of them left it no worse for the wear. Then late in the history of this place, humans well-versed in Old World landscape alteration arrived on the edge of the forest with European scales on their eyes. They were blinded to the intrinsic values of an ancient forest, and unsustainable exploitation began. Though the remaining landscape is missing historical species, forest cover by an order of magnitude, and the ripeness of age, enough endures to exude a palatable rawness, a primal essence like a wafting pheromone attracting those of us who remain susceptible.


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