THE “S” IN MISSISSIPPI
By Joe Goodell
Katherine Lee Bates got it right. America is beautiful, as is Mississippi. Her poem describing the wonders of our magnificent country later joined Samuel A Ward’s hymn, America the Beautiful, to become a patriotic favorite.
She speaks of amber waves of grain, the fruited plain, which, of course could include cotton, corn and beans, sweet potatoes, watermelons and tomatoes. The spacious skies and majestic mountains — America, blessed with God’s grace from sea to shining sea, and of the beat for freedom across the wilderness.
Given the privilege of counseling MS Bates, I would have urged from her more about the wilderness. That which includes the varieties of forests, rich and deep, deserts of the west, and wetlands of the southeast. Inform a lady that she is as beautiful as dawn on the desert, she knows that she’s been complimented.
The beauty and magnificence of a swamp, however, eludes many observers. Perhaps a put-off is the unsavory sound of that “s” word. Like a load of compost slithering off a dump wagon onto the pile out back. Note how Atchafalaya, The Everglades, Okefenokee, even The Great Dismal of Virginia, to their credit, have discarded it.
Our very own “Cypress Swamp,” with all the features and merits of its larger relatives, could be “Tupelo-Bald Cypress Aquatic Forest.” Right away your interest and appeal to visit have risen dramatically. It lies a convenient twenty miles north of Jackson next to River Bend on the Natchez Trace Parkway. The National Park Service does a splendid job preserving and presenting to you this passport to a marvel of discovery. Leaving your own home, you enter that of others as a guest to a dazzling panorama of trees, water and remarkable animals. There is more than enough beauty to soothe a tired soul, and enough variety to stimulate a lively curiosity. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the unique harmony.
At slightly higher elevations are the oak, sweet gum, dogwood and pine. Growing in the dark water, and draped with moss, are tupelo and bald cypress being ever so slowly replaced by black willow, sycamore and red maple as silt fills in. The medley of trees is a grand structure of swallowed sunlight, silos for storing shadows, where a subtle mix of fragrances is dispensed through the soft murmur of overhead branches rubbing in a light breeze.
Best observed from a distance are a few of Mississippi’s fifty-five snake species and, of course, el lagarto, as the Spaniards called him. Best observed up close is the small stuff, the frogs (both source and subject of music), the turtles and a mini world of insects hidden among the leaves and in patches of bark.
Inconspicuously masked in natural shades of the forest you are likely to meet squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, opossum, armadillo, deer and even a beaver or bobcat, plus the diversity of birds busy in their domestic routines. Highly unlikely for now, but with increasing possibility, is the sighting of a black bear, magnificent but hardly as cuddly as Teddy Roosevelt would have you believe.
You might even speculate about what those cypress “knees” really do for their parent trees — the same ones perhaps seen by Hernando de Soto himself, driven by visions of silver and gold, but oblivious to the surrounding natural treasures essential for our survival.
Historically regarded as useless, wetlands in general were often drained to provide a range for planting. Today this practice is held to be destructive to environments critically important to the process of providing fresh water and oxygen for all life. On an ancient time scale wetlands produced our fossil fuels; on a shorter scale they are found to control floods, stabilize shore lines, counter erosion and recharge ground water.
Mississippi’s wetlands, far from being wastelands, are linked to images of southern landscape, spaces for intercultural encounters. They are lowland waterways unimpeded by mountains, free to change course, forever moving, though slowly, as a half-way world between things terrestrial and those aquatic. The shallow water, its level changing with the seasons, supports a hydrologic community of fascinating resources and life forms in progress from primeval times.
There are marshes, those tracts of low wet soft grassland without trees, and the swamps (aquatic forests), wet spongy land with trees. The estuary of Mississippi’s Pascagoula River is a seamless enchanting passage from the treeless grass and water expanse to the wetland forest, a colorful tapestry affluent with trees and shrubs, all spread beneath a bright sky dotted with popcorn clouds.
Quite opposite to the sinister and forbidding specters of literary superstition and Hollywood, or to that “marsh of the Styx” from Dante’s “Devine Comedy,” lowland waterways are vital in the “great scheme of things.” They deserve our protection and reverence alongside the majestic mountains, under spacious skies, as rightful partners of “America the Beautiful.”
All photos provided by Deborah Fagan Carpenter