2-3 minute read. Note: We are currently in Mississippi, USA. //
One baby alligator came to the boat launch to see us off. Its little grey-brown body hung delicately in the water and it swivelled around to look at each boat, one by one. The day was warm and the sky cloud-free, the river still and brilliant, like Tiffany glass that had been smeared with oil and reverently scattered to reflect the day. As our school of boats motored out to the lake, beyond the noise ordinance boundary, we were like a swamp armada, massing to penetrate the marshes and backwaters of southern Louisiana.
[Caption: Spot the well-wishing baby 'gator hiding in this picture; one of the yellow-eared swamp invaders; a few members of the armada]
Soon we began to pass ancient Live Oak draped in Spanish moss like excessive Bohemian shawls. Sweet flowers and the heavy smell of still water reached our little group, the air drifting across the sapphires of the water and the emeralds of the swamp. All fresh and bright with morning air and tropical heat. Our guide yelled and pointed, there: the polished walnut eyes of the alligators sinuating towards our little boat, unfazed by the engine as it demolished the morning’s quiet.
[Caption: One of the teenagers who swam over to say 'hello' and 'feed me']
The open lake waters, stretching out to the horizon, were fluffed up by the light breeze and dragonflies balanced on driftwood and water hyacinth, odd little acrobats. Our boat’s raucous passing tossed them all into the air like a handful of marbles. The wake rolled away in glutinous swells as the insects re-took their places and reorganised their wings. Across the lake, silver pylons stood solitary without reeds or sand to buffer their feet against the currents, rising from the mirrored surface like beasts from the future and sending power out to the horizon.
In the smaller channels, where opposing trees neatly clasped their branches over the water, the Spanish moss filtered sunlight into soft and silvery shafts. The longest tendrils of moss almost reached the surface and wafts of breeze stirred individual strands without warning, triggering me to look for the squirrel or snake racing along the branches above. The mossy ribbons were formed by thousands of inch-long ‘leaves’ zigzagging back and forth to create dangling chains: an accordion fold of velvet fronds that drink clean air and are harmless to their hosts even as they bury them.
[Caption: Spanish Moss at its most splendid]
The blue of the sky stared down into the flawed mirror of the backwaters as algae mats ate the sun little by little. Below the surface pondweed lolled with the waters, thick with gelatinous slime. Without our airboat, the only movement of the backwaters would be the passing of a gator or the acceleration of its prey, and even with our arrival our noise was immediately absorbed by the Cyprus trees. The hot air lay gently over the swamps as it was only May and the smothering humidity of summer was still weeks away.
[Caption: Still waters full of hidden life (i.e. don't go swimming)]
The alligators preferred the dim channels with their thick canopy, enjoying the pincushions of light that stabbed down onto the endlessly flipping perch. They also liked them for their low banks and regular supply of human visitors bearing illegal marshmallows (pun unintended but still unfortunate). The bayou banks were dirt, naked of leaf mould or undergrowth despite the encroaching branches and moss, but untouched by human feet for many years. The unnumbered swamp hogs and deer and armadillos and nutria and hares and raccoons instead were responsible for maintaining shadowy forest paths and access to the channel. The gators must have also helped on the lower banks, where the mud was smooth with rough clawmarks to either side.
Pregnant gators, all named Allie by the eponym-bestowers at hand, preferred to leave the cooler glades and brave the sun to build their nests. Ten thousand acres of marsh and bayou stretched away to the Gulf of Mexico, ten thousand acres of cattails and reeds and nesting territory. All the Allies, after mating with all the Al’s, build metre-high mud castles and then hollow them out: a dry kingdom for the young. Here, though, is where human feet have walked in recent time. Here, the spring egg harvesting is big business. Holding Allie at distraught distance with a paddle, daring egg-men empty the nests in their entirety. They then hatch the eggs in captivity to give the babies a head-start at surviving in the bayous, then help them grow to pocket-book-sized little adolescents when they are large enough to be prey only to others of their own kind, and humans. Eighteen percent are returned to the marsh, and the rest are sent to market.
[Caption: Marsh for the next 10,000 acres...]
The marsh on this morning, though, was empty of Allies and egg-men and wide open to the sky. A nutria hooted in the distance, unaware that its tail was worth $6. The cattails’ tips were chalk brown like badly tempered chocolate and stretched taller than even the sawgrass as they nodded to the breeze. In our tin boat we were the size of beetles as we stared into the reeds, green and slender like enlarged lawn grass. When our guide passed around an infant gator (perhaps an Allie, perhaps and Al), its eyes held the striated gold of a housecat, not old enough to become the shiny ebony of its elders’. Its skin was silky and nobbled with perfect scales like an aerial view of suburbs grooved with roads.
[Caption: Al(lie) has a flap at the back of the throat that prevents water getting in; alligators will lie on the bottom for up to two hours with their mouths open, waiting for something to swim in]
Alligators are the top of the food chain in the bayous as even the water moccasins, cottonmouths and rattlers can’t pierce their hides. Top of the food chain, besides humans of course whose fleshy bits are held out of the way by an inch of aluminium and the judicious use of a paddle. Humans who are so confident in their supremacy that they organise programmes to catch and raise the next predator in line to preserve and grow its numbers.
And then it was time for us top predators to leave. The journey out of the bayous was fast and wet, as the fanboat thrummed over the wake of other fanboats and caught their spray so it misted my eyebrows before evaporating into the sun. Soon cottages and shacks appeared, manning the banks and filling the shore with modest motorboats and docks. We were a half-dozen airboats landing at once from different directions with the same grace as balls caught by a juggler. On the docks, after returning our ear protectors and not having the change to tip our guide, we re-entered our own world. Programming the GPS, looking at the time, looking for a Louisiana lunch – the same spin of thoughts that comes with awakening, even as our minds yearned back to that beautiful morning on the bayou.
[Caption: A beautiful morning on the bayou...]