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Swamp Magic


Bayou-Diversity (23 August 2020) Just after daybreak on this unseasonably cool, late August morning we walked to the Wreck, a hike that traversed two ecosystems, and witnessed a bit of magic. From our house on the edge of the Pleistocene terrace where the historical forest was a mix of upland hardwoods and pines, we descended into the bottomland hardwood forest of the Bayou D’Arbonne floodplain. The descent was only thirty feet, but for the biota it was as drastic as 3,000 feet on a Colorado mountain. Two months earlier our path in the swamp was ten feet beneath the natural backwaters of overflow wetlands. There were no signs of the flood today as the forest floor was powder dry, belying the fact that bluegills and smallmouth buffalo recently spawned where swamp hibiscus now blooms.

The Wreck is a landmark known to fewer and fewer people as time flows down the serpentine bayou. It is prominent in my family lore. My father told of being taught to swim there by his grandfather before the Great Depression and before the gluttonous cotton sucked the fertility from the marginal soils just up the hill, driving most of his generation away. Tradition holds that when deer finally returned to the swamp after years of persecution, they always crossed the bayou at the Wreck. In February, the Wreck was a favored place to bottom fish for the cold, glistening bass with red eyes. For us it has always been a reference point in the swamp, a location from which to orient one to another spot, a place to begin a story, to reminisce about old times.

The Wreck of course was named after a memorable accident. In 1890 the steamboat “Tributary” sank there after catching fire just upstream at Turkey Bluff. The blazing inferno fueled by 300 bales of clay-hill cotton drifted down a long, straight stretch of the bayou and ran aground in a sharp bend, our turn-around point for the morning hike. Even at the present low-water level, no evidence of the bygone drama is visible now as shifting sandbars and scouring currents have cleared the stage. The bayou is late summer translucent. A white perch fisherman below the bend probed a submerged treetop with a fluorescent jig. Longnose gar breached the surface to gasp the cool air, and an unseen rain crow beckoned an afternoon thunderstorm. The magic of the Wreck though defied gravity with wings on this morning. From the exact point of the rising sun more than a hundred wood storks appeared in bleached chevrons of a dozen or more. Escorted by outliers of egrets and herons, and with five-foot wingspans to carry their parcels of myths, the storks like gangly angels flap-glided over our heads and over all the stories of the Wreck on their way to tomorrow.

 

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