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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”