It was called Island Road, a puzzle since there was no lake or river. The island turned out to be a large agricultural field that lay behind the house, hidden by woodland. The only way to access it without wading through swamp was by a raised field road built to access this big chunk of fertile alluvial soil. The cropland lay just a few feet higher than the surrounding wetlands and flooded most springs. One side of the huge field was bordered by a wide straightened stream the locals called the channel. The field road to “the island” was gated and the farmer held one key and he handed one to me. It was like having my own wildlife preserve.
We lived just in front of that gate in a shabby, uninsulated tenant cabin, but those eight years were some of my richest. Permission to explore the 1600 acres that surrounded the shack was the gift. The house kept us dry, but barely. It was chilly in winter and tepid at best in summer, but it was just a place to sleep. The swamps lay behind us and the higher land across the road, and eventually we came to know all the nooks, crests and paths.
We, I should explain, are the pack, composed of one human and a troop of dogs. Dogs are the best company for meandering explorations. They live in the moment and bring no angst with them from the world of performance appraisals, bills and clocks. Once the initial celebration of leaving the house subsided, our communication was mostly wordless. I could turn them with a whistle and wave of my arm. They would make me aware of other creatures, sometimes by body English and other times by barking.
The troop size varied by how many dogs had been thrown out at the local bridge, where unscrupulous sorts also threw out garbage, dead appliances and even dead livestock. I picked up the dogs, doctored them , neutered them, and fattened them up. If they blossomed into adoptable dogs, I worked with local rescues to assure these blue collar dogs would end up in white-collar homes. If they stayed too fearful of strangers, or had persistent health issues, they could stay with me. A few dogs declared right away that they wanted only me as their person, and I agreed it was so.
I’d never lived adjacent to a swamp, never thought I’d want to, but if you ever doubted water was life, this was proof. What is the best adjective for that habitat? Teeming. Abundant. Rife. Fecund…
…until that fall. The current fall drought we are experiencing reminded me of this similar one – that fall when I still lived next to the Luray bottoms. That fall was the one it grew so dry that we were able to walk areas of the swamp that were usually hip deep in black water, areas I had only been able to navigate before by picking my way along incredibly long and meandering beaver dams.
Some places were deceptive – still a little spongy, and if I didn’t keep moving, I’d begin to sink. Other times what looked solid was just a thin crust that my booth punched right through and I’d find myself up to the knee in muck. My farmer friend Van David Harris had warned me many times about parts of the swamp where you could “git marred up to yer straddle”.
Seeing the swamp stripped of its watery cover was enlightening. Some of the sedges I thought were growing in the water were actually perched atop barely covered stumps. Now they look like wild hairdos atop columns of bark.
There are no common bald cypress trees in this swamp. The larger trees that stood in the water were tupelo gum (Nyssa aquatica). The shape and color of the trunks changed just at submersion level, where they became quite tubby. Many, even most, were hollow, I suspect from being gnawed by beaver at some point. The opening to the hollow was usually half in and half out of the water, forming a dark cave when the swamp was full. Now we could walk right up to peer in, and speculate what other creatures had taken refuge there besides the swamp rabbits (Sylvilagus aquaticus). More than once, we had seen them swim inside and climb high into the interior of the hollow trees, causing much doggy consternation.
The dry swamp revealed a network of narrow ditches just a few inches deep. They ran through the bottoms of the pools, completely invisible when the pools were full of water. The randomness of their directions were in sharp contrast to their puzzling uniformity in width and depth. I followed them, now full of crispy leaves underfoot, and found they often led to beaver lodges, now high and dry. The beavers must have made them, but there was no evidence of digging.
I made a call to Dr. Allan Houston, wildlife biologist at the Ames Plantation research center in Hardeman County. He explained that the uniform ditches were created by constant use and are called beaver runs. Just as you may find animal paths of uniform width through the fields, these are beaver paths underwater, and the width is just the width of their bodies.
The lodges were impressive – made of mud and sticks, with two holes for entry and exit, both below the usual water level. I was tempted to make a peephole and peer inside, but felt it was rude to tear up someone’s home while they were gone. I hoped they’d be back when the water returned.
Besides, maybe it was time to let some of the secrets remain so. The drought had taken its toll on the swamp and its residents, but it had rewarded me with its revelations. On my way back to the house on the dusty field road, I did my best rain dance. The dogs were tired and thirsty and did not notice.