After a few miles, the sun no longer made its way under the dense Cypress - the darkest water in this cathedral-like passage to Big Water is infested with swollen blooming seaweed called bladderworts. When small aquatic bugs smell or eat the rootless, free-floater's edible mucus, the bladder expands, sucking the buggers in to be dissolved. When they produce stalks that shoot outward from the water to bloom, they give a spooky kind of structure to the swamp's mirrored surface.
A giant forest wolf spider sat on a tree; he could have been five inches across; a black mark on a tree just above the waterline. It takes isolation like this to see such a rich and odd biosystem. But the Okefenokee had almost been destroyed - first by logging, and then by attempts to drain it. Georgia was one of the first Atlantic states to realize the importance of wetlands as part of the greater structure of the American ecosystem. They preserved these seven hundred square miles, as well as hundreds of miles of saltwater marshes along the coast.
But as I'm paddling here, other ranges of wetlands in Southern Florida and Louisiana are losing their level of protection - you could ask why? But degradation of habitat, balance, moderation and resource sustainability are all blurry abstractions if your voting public's views on environmentalism have been framed by the quest of the creation scientists - those fundamentalist elitists who preach against science to millions.
If you paint a religious map of the south, so that every county whose affiliation constitutes over fifty-percent Southern Baptist and related conventions, almost every county is painted in their colors. So why do fundamentalist conventions forget about the important biblical stuff, like their own diet, and instead concentrate on the fruitless attempts to debunk natural selection?
It was a great question, and I was on the long road to Waycross, to find out part of the answer. I met two guys sitting in the shade - one guy must have been fifteen or so, he wore overalls. His partner (it turns out they ferried tourists into the swamp by skiff) was eldelry and wore a cap. They invited me into their argument, which was about riding lawn-mowers. The elder said that the riding lawnmower existed 'way before the car.'
"Eighteen-eighty-four, ahh believe," he said.
"Jus'nit possible," the younger said, "motors were invented for the cah."
"Oh, not motorized. It was lahk a bahk. You rode it aruhnd lahk a bahcicle."
I enjoyed the slowness of their banter; the young guy could have been paddling a raft invented by Mark Twain - their accents weren't awful at all, like they're always depicted - but pleasant and rolling, like a blues song from long ago. I told them I was going to visit Waycross, where I wanted to see a petrified dog. The old man laughed at this, and said, "marvelous!"
Somewhere along the Alabama-Georgia state line, a petrified coon hound was discovered wedged in a tree. Probably, he had chased some southern cuisine to its nest - possum, squirrel, cat, woodchuck - and became stuck in the tree's hollowed trunk.
In a rare display of nature's work, he was quickly petrified into stony dog. He, and the tree, once discovered, were hauled off to Waycross, Georgia, to go on exhibit at the local museum. The town voted and gave him a name, "Stuckie", and the name stuck.
Southern creation-scientists use Stuckie as proof that God created the world just a few thousand years ago. One writes, "(we) are often taught that it takes millions of years for things to petrify," but Stuckie, among other evidence, such as a "mummified cowboy hat" and a "fossilized fish giving birth" provide ample evidence that "petrification can take place instantly." And thus, naturally, dinosaurs must have roamed the Earth within the last six thousand years.
I wanted to find out more about how Stuckie the Dog had influenced the creationist scientific movement, so I called the Creation Science Evangelism Institute's science experts and asked what they thought about Stuckie.
Although willing to chat, they refused to answer my gentle questions - a closed-door approach that reminded me of my interviews with stumbling Taliban-sympathizers in 2001.
The road to Brunswick is lined by vast coastal wetlands. Georgia - amuck in wetlands, was one of the first states to recognize their ecological importance. As far as I can see, these miles and miles of water and brush are protected by the state.
Brunswick is lines of fast food chains; it is a port town and a stopover point for tourists on their way to Florida. It is gray streets, broken-down hotels, freight cranes and litter.
Still, a place called Captain Jacks had food, and I was hungry. Perhaps some steamed clams? I was the only customer; the carpets were rotting, I could feel the springs in the seats. The waitress, it was just her and I, was popping bubble gum. I thought I'd make small talk, but she was vacant, like Brunswick itself.
Since it all seemed fried, I asked what to order. "The sampler seafood plate," she said, staring out the window. The plate was filled with fried fish - fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried oysters, fried crab claws. It all tasted the same. "Which one is the oysters?" I asked.
A gruff-looking customer and two girls walked in and took seats. The seat made a noise, and he stood up to feel the seat. Then he asked for a beer.
"No beer, sir," the waitress said.
He looked angry. I snickered and made a comment. I said I was on my way to a tradeshow. He said he was a sports writer from Florida. We introduced ourselves from across our tables. I asked 'how many ways can you write about a team winning and a team losing?"
He didn't answer, but explained that he did travel writing on the side and was on his way to Savannah to do a story about the coastal town. I noticed the tears in his collar and shirtsleeves, the poor writer. I imagined him with his pen, "Savannah is a city rich in history, Southern charm and old-fashioned hospitality. Our hotel was beautiful."
He told me the glamour of travel writing; how he could get a free hotel stay in exchange for an article. I told him that was a great way to open his daughters' eyes up to the world. He patted them on the head and said, "this fish is awful!"
"Where is all the southern food?" I asked.
"Oh, you have to look for it," he said. And after a pause, "The truth is, it's not very popular anymore. The shops are closing up. People want hamburgers, you know." Along the way, I got more of the same. An Alabama man would later tell me that "the young folks, you know, they want Applebee's."
I woke early next morning to drive across the bridge to Jekyll Island to take a walk in its overgrown interior. Since the pathways had flooded with spring rain, it seemed nobody had walked through the towering oaks for weeks. I came out the other end, crossed a street and found my way to the white sand beach of the Atlantic coast. I sat down and wrote for hours in my journal. So many days without email or phone gave me some kind of sense of priority. I busied myself on that beach with the affairs of home. Then I got hungry. I hear they have great crawfish in Savannah.