Day 12 – November 14

          It’s 10 AM, and we’re speeding over the waters of the Intracoastal Canal in Dean Wilson’s flat-bottomed outboard boat. Dean’s German Shepherd, Shanka, is balanced on the edge with her nose flush to the wind and ears pushed back. Already, this is no ordinary morning. The Intercoastal Canal runs 3,000 miles along the Atlantic Coast from Massachusetts to Florida and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to Texas. This section of the canal is part of the Atchafalaya River, and Dean is the Atchafalaya Basin Keeper. As part of the Water Keepers Alliance, Dean is entrusted with leading efforts to protect the Atchafalaya Basin and its diverse ecosystems. 
One Luce group prepares to go out to the swamp with Dean Wilson.

One Luce group prepares to go out to the swamp with Dean Wilson.

Dean Wilson and his first mate.

Dean Wilson and his first mate.

             We exit the main river channel via a canal and find ourselves drifting slowly through a surreal world. Spanish moss hangs lazily from the branches of cypress trees, and water bugs and mosquitoes skirt the surface of the water, colored green by a thin mat of the invasive Salvinia and the native duckweed plants.

Cypress and tupelo tree swamp.  Note how the surface of the water is covered with Salvinia and duckweed.

Cypress and tupelo tree swamp. Note how the surface of the water is covered with Salvinia and duckweed.

            Cutting our motor in the midst of the swamp, Dean stands on the bow of the boat and explains that these areas are threatened by the further logging of cypress and tupelo trees. Historically, over 2 million acres of healthy cypress swamp existed in Louisiana whereas today only 800,000 acres of second-growth forest remain. Motioning skyward with his hands, Dean explains to us that 150 years ago this swamp would have been dark, shielded from the sun by a dense forest canopy. Hearing him speak, I can almost see the landscape he depicts, unmarked by crosscut saws and pull boats that carried hundreds of thousands of logs away to fuel a burgeoning economy.

             Today, these swamps are one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems due to annual fluctuations in water levels that provide a wide range of habitats.   They are dominated by two swamp tree species:  cypress and tupelo.  Many species of birds and fish, as well as otter, alligators, mink, and crawfish find their homes here. As we continue our passage through the swamp, we spot bald eagles, great blue herons, tricolored herons, black-crowned night herons, lizards, and a very large barred owl that stares silently at us from a nearby branch. Perhaps the most moving experience of the day comes when we visit an old-growth cypress tree. Burned hollow by lightning but still very much alive, the tree may be two thousand years old, and its wide girth holds witness to its ancient origins. The lightning saved the tree from the loggers and so it still stands today.  We gather a few seed pods from the tree’s branches and hold them lightly in our hands. A surge of hope courses through me, and I am thankful that at least this much of the forest is here. 

The ancient cypress tree.

The ancient cypress tree.

            Always present during our time here, however, is the understanding that, as Dean says, “we are very close to losing this forever.” Because most sections of cypress swamps are owned privately, there is a constant pressure to initiate new logging projects. In the last few decades, several companies formed a business around the use of cypress trees for mulch products. Due to this development, the Save Our Cypress Coalition was formed, which actively contacted major retailers, including Home Depot, Lowes, and Walmart, in order to prevent the logging of cypress trees for this use. At great personal risk, the members of the Coalition successfully stopped all cypress logging in Coastal Louisiana. Dean is modest about these achievements and reminds us that the fight to protect wild places is a constant one. State enforcement of cypress logging regulations is very weak, and Dean and others must act as watchdogs for the state in order to prevent illegal activity. 

             I am also reminded in this swamp, as I have been numerous times in the past two weeks, that we as humans are inseparably linked to our environments. There is something about wild places that allows us to distill our abundant wisdom into a few drops of truth. And I know now, more than ever, that I am not willing to trade that ancient cypress tree, or the bald eagles, or Louisiana’s wetlands, or mountaintops in West Virginia simply to preserve a way of life that is based on the acquisition of more and more things. Despite the fact that I may never revisit Louisiana (though I fully expect to do so), I believe strongly that this place, and so many others, are worth saving.

Canopy of the cypress-tupelo swamp.  Notice the Spanish moss, an aerophyte.

Canopy of the cypress-tupelo swamp. Notice the Spanish moss, an aerophyte, which derives moisture and nutrients from the air and rain.


           Back at the Blue Moon Guesthouse for the night after a rewarding day, we are treated to a live performance by Troy Richard and the Richard Revue, a fantastic southern rock band. The back porch is packed with a vibrant cast of characters and couples moving in broken circles around the dance floor. The warm throb of the music seems to lift up the roof, and a palpable feeling of joy and excitement permeates everything.

Kerri enjoys dancing at the Blue Moon.

Kerri enjoys dancing at the Blue Moon.

            Standing to the side with a group of close friends, I watch Breanna and Kirsten spin on the dance floor and a line from an old Hopi Indian poem comes to mind: “It is time to create your community. Be good to each other. Banish the word “struggle” from your attitude and vocabulary. Everything now must be done in a sacred manner… and in celebration.”

 Katie Panek

5 Responses to “Day 12 – November 14”

  1. Vinca Says:

    Hi Everyone!
    This blog is amazing because it reminds me of my own LUCE experience. I like reading it because is interesting and new since you are all adding your own personal twists to the journey. What a great time. I am so excited for your last week of adventures. Enjoy every minute:)

  2. Jeffrey from Says:

    Very nice post. Dean is an amazing educator and activist and I am glad he was able to impart some of his knowledge to your group. A minor correction, he is the Basinkeeper, the article says River Keeper, an easy and common mistake.


  3. Vallie Says:

    Hey there Luce crew! I’m enjoying the updates and photos. Thanks to Candie and Mike’s recommendation, I took a swamp tour with Dean Wilson when I visited Louisiana a few year’s ago. It was an experience that will stick with me, as I’m sure this trip will for many of you.

    Back here in Carlisle we are enjoying warm, sunny, and colorful days of fall. Today I constructed some round plot markers (for a transect-survey) that resemble hula-hoops. You can bet that if there was live cajun music in Kaufman, I would have tried a two-step.

  4. luce09 Says:

    Thanks Jeffrey — we corrected the blog!

  5. James Says:

    Thursday I was searching for sites related to LUCE SEMESTER 2009: FROM THE BAY TO THE BAYOU » Blog Archive » Day 12 – November 14 sites and I found your site. I give this one a perfect 10!

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