Monday, January 16, 2012

Unwelcome Guests in the Baldcypress

The more time I spend here, the more I can only conclude that the River is done with us.  And you too. The people who lived here for a thousand years, the Nottoway Indians, still exist in the margins.  Their language, an Iroquoian dialect, was dead by 1838. Their name is a ghost in itself - "Na Da Wa" was a hateful Algonquin slur passed from the Powhatan scouts  to the English colonists within months of their arrival at Jamestown.  The English apparently thought it was this southern tribe's proper name, the "Nottoway."  Their real name? The Cheroenhaka.  Two hundred years of incursions, segregation, and racist census laws nearly drove the tribe extinct.

White people, and black people, came and cut down the trees - 500-year old Baldcypress and 200 year old Chestnut and Oak, and then went about the work of being people.  Tobacco, cotton, peanuts.  Sawmills. Factories.    And in 2012, much of it is gone.  Factories closed because Virginia's minimum wage, $3.50 per hour just a few years ago, was "too much burden" on factory owners, who prefer less expensive child labor in India.  Sawmills closed because the state forestry department said, "you probably shouldn't de-forest a thousand acres of swamp without planting some trees there."  Tobacco farms have grown up with trees since the state government offered a buy-out to get farmers out of the tobacco industry a few years ago, when it was clear that tobacco was an unsustainable crop for Virginia soils.  This place is not for people. This is the margin of where people can exist.

Cypress Cone
But the Eastern Baldcypress remains.  It lives where people won't, or can't.  Ditches. Swamps. Rivers. In some places on the Nottoway, it seems to grow in endless stands.  Yup, baldcypress is a tree like no other.   A member of a dying evolutionary tree that pre-dates the dinosaurs, it thrives in dank, acidic water in the American South.

Now, creeping through the cypress stands in Nottoway swamp in the dark is not for the faint of heart, or light of gear. there are tilting cypress trees, floating beaver fall, and a submarine navy of soaked logs just below the surface.  The birds are here too.   Ducks of course- mallards, wood ducks, and ringnecks, but also woodpeckers.  More than I have ever seen.  Ladder-backs, downy, redbellied, red-headed, flickers, and the kingly pileated. All pecking away at rot-resistant trees that died years ago, but still stand 60 feet tall.

We were set up an hour before dawn in a new meander that the River is building.  I had never seen so many cypress knees. A very weak show of wood duck pairs flew by in the dark, over the course of 40 minutes or so, calling to our decoys only to say, "Join us. Leave here."  Before light, the far bank of the River was scattered with hooded mergansers.  It was great to actually see birds using the habitat and not flying by us at 70mph.   Like every other species of duck in this failure of a waterfowl migration, the birds were paired, and not in flocks at all.

A Hoodie Falls
At first, we could only see the white head patches on the male hooded mergansers, but as the sun started to rise, we could see how many birds we were dealing with in our little river bend.  Two eventually flew, and the male was killed for our cause (a fried bird sandwich that tastes more like a fried oyster sandwich).

On cue, the birds stopped flying.  A warm, winter (?) sun was upon us again and the swamp's waterfowl went back to loafing around, safely out of our reach.  We set about on another task - collecting baldcypress cones for my wetland restoration work in Maryland (the trees last widely inhabited the state prior to our most recent ice age), and wondering when, if ever, the flyway's waterfowl might migrate south.  As Tug maneuvered the boat under low-hanging cypress branches full of fertile cones, I plucked them one at a time and put them in my hunting pack, while the thick, heavy cypress sap covered my fingers and let me know, "it's time for you to leave today."


Seth Goodrich said...

Kirk, I enjoyed the read and look forward to future posts. I will post a link on my blog site so others can check it out.

Kirk Mantay said...

Seth, thanks, I look forward to checking out your blog too!

Camper Trailer said...

Great great post! I really enjoyed reading it. It feel like I'm with you during the whole read. Thanks a lot

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