All I knew was that I really wanted to go to the Okefenokee Swamp and that I had wanted to go there for as long as I could remember. When we planned NiCGS, Part 2, the idea was that the Okefenokee would be our southernmost terminus, and everything else fell into place around that point.
Then one day came the coup de foudre, the light-dawns-over-Marblehead-moment, the Jupiter-zap: Pogo Possum lived in the Okefenokee Swamp. Many years ago, in my bean sprout days, my father read Walt Kelly’s Pogo in the Boston Globe every morning. It amused him. I didn't get the satire on political campaigns, or the mockery of Joe McCarthy as Simple Malarkey, and the Jack Acid Society…but I could get that it amused my father. He approved of Pogo.
So it wasn’t really the swamp I was after, but some glimmer of a memory of my father, some connection to the father that in fact I knew very little because he traveled so much and when he was around, he was more interested in the three sons. I couldn’t get his attention when I was a child, but I could pay homage to the wit and wisdom of Pogo and Albert the Alligator and I too could quote Pogo: “Don’t talk life so serious…It ain’t no how permanent.”
So from a simple ‘wildlife adventure’, our trip to the Okefenokee is transformed into a pilgrimage, a quest of sorts. I am looking for Pogo Possum, in order to find my father.
CSB is agreeable. True, it isn’t Andalusia, but he is happy to come to the swamp. He recalls going there as a boy with his father: they rented a canoe and paddled under looming cypresses. It was mysterious and hidden. They surprised alligators and were surprised by water moccasins. He does not recall any possums, but he wasn’t seeking one either.
After a long day driving (recall the daring foray into the cotton fields) we eat in, happily ensconced at the Waycross Comfort Suites -thanks to more repartee with my guy, William Shatner. We dine on car snacks: nuts, dried tomatoes, clementines, and dark chocolate, and drink some white wine. (Foolishly, we leave the white wine behind in the Comfort Suites mini-frig, and we will regret this.) Here is our view:
The next morning, it is bloody-hell, nose-numbing freezing cold the next morning. In Waycross, Georgia. On the cusp of the Okefenokee. Almost into Florida. I am outraged and indignant. Also very cold.
Upon cursory reading of the website, it becomes obvious that we will give a pass to the Okefenokee Swamp Park, with its Serpentarium and ‘railroad’ tours, and go further south to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
This involves a lengthy chat with the lady at the entrance booth. She is wearing a lilac sweater. She is friendly, very friendly. She wants us to buy a Yearlong Senior Pass to National Wildlife Refuges. “A great deal,” she says. “That y’all won’t regret.” CSB hesitates because we are unlikely to go to another wildlife refuge this year. She is insistent. CSB mentions that there is a car waiting behind us. She says we needn’t worry. CSB says that back in New York that car would be honking impatiently. (He does not specify that he would be the one honking.) She is interested to learn that we are Yankees from New York. She tells CSB that y’all in New York are responsible for the terrible president we now have, and CSB tells her that we actually like that terrible president. She looks incredulous. The lady in lilac promises us that no one in Georgia or the Okefenokee will ever get impatient or honk a horn. CSB caves and buys the Senior Pass to all National Wildlife Refuges. He tells the lady in the booth, “Lilac is your color.”
Then we are at the swamp, and well, it is not quite what I imagined. Feared. Hoped.
Most of it burned down in 2007. Lightning struck in April, and fire overtook the swamp until July; its smoke could be seen in the skies of Atlanta and Orlando. Pretty much the whole swamp went up in flames. Then again in April of 2011, the Honey Prairie fire ignited. It was not declared to be extinguished until a year later.
These fires meant that the towering bald cypresses draped in mosses, the swamp tupelos were gone. The hammocks were denuded of their evergreen oaks and longleaf pine. The flora that had been home and hiding place to all that fauna, to Pogo, Albert Alligator, Churchy LaFemme, Howland Owl, Mam’selle Hepzibah and Porky Pine, was no more.
We tread a boardwalk over the prairie, see a mother alligator and three or four babies, and we climb a five-story tower, for the view. We take a boat trip along canals and see exactly two alligators and some birds. It is so cold we wrap up in fleece blankets provide by the refuge. I am wearing: a tee shirt, a flannel shirt, a cashmere sweater, a fleece jacket –the black one featuring the FANNIN/LEHNER/ PRESERVATION CONSULTANTS logo stitched over my left breast – and a very old red barn jacket that will turn out to have a hole in the right side pocket. I have a fleece hat and a pair of lightweight pale yellow gloves, which I had thought I might have to wear in the mountains on North Carolina. It was never my intention to wear them on the Okefenokee. CSB is wearing about 3 fewer layers than I am, and he complains of the cold far less than I do.
The swamp is still beautiful and the water is black and shimmering. I do not find Pogo Possum, no more than Peter Matthiessen saw the snow leopard, but all day long I thought about what my father found so funny, and muttered to myself, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”