Plains

Yellow Pitcher Plants in Georgia

PHOTO: Hooded pitcher plants near the Okefenokee Swamp.

Sweet Southern Swamp

Paddling Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp.

I

left Macon, in Central Georgia; pastures and pines; hungry for sweet potato cakes and grits.

Neon-colored billboards on the I-75 featured fresh pecans and adult erotica superstores. Somewhere between Macon and Valdosta, I stopped off to get a bite to eat. The restaurants were closed, so I dropped by the quik-mart.

A set of jars with a yellow-green liquid sat on a hotdog stand. Bottled inside were the grimy feet of pigs - pickled pig's feet. A whole refrigerated display of Vanilla Coca cola, Frit-o-lay chips, Nut'N'Butter, Squeeze-Cheese. There were some refrigerator magnets and maps of Georgia. I was hungry, but I couldn't eat like this. I picked up a package of Lunchables and shook it. I put it down, and left.

The next morning, I woke in the Gator Motel and left my hotel fee under the lamp, in dollar bills. Across the street at the market, I relented to three packages of Lunchables, several gallons of water, and a beer.

"It's Sunday," the clerk said. "No beer on Sunday."

I found that ridiculous. A twenty-four ounce of Pabst is the perfect nightcap after long hours on the swamp. Eyes peered at me from every corner of the market, as if I had done something wrong. An Atlanta woman heard the exchange and said, "Ain't from Jawjuh are ya?" I knew she had faked her accent; the sounds of Atlanta mimic the sound of America.

I told her that I thought this was the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. She told me her life story. We parted ways.

There is nothing in the bible that says you shouldn't have a beer on Sunday. Jesus worshipped with wine. Beer was around for thousands of years before Jesus. A Sumerian goddess with a beautiful name, Ninkasi, was even named the goddess of beer.

At the time, Egypt was the major exporter of beer; and it flowed all through the Mediterranean. Some people believe that when the Bible refers to Jesus' praises of wine, he is actually referring to beer. At the time, grains were the dominant crop of the Mediterranean, not grapes. And grapes were the luxury of the Roman elite. Jesus' friends were the commoners, and they would naturally have drunk beer.

The correct Aramaic to English translation from the earliest bibles for the phrase 'turned water into wine', after all, is actually '...water into strong drink.' The bible also refers to 'wine and strong drink.' Were we to take the bible literally, we may imply that Jesus' turning water into a strong drink implied he was a brewmeister.

Sweet Southern Swamp, a large cricket peers out from the undergrowth.

Northern Lubber Grasshopper

The Georgia blue law against selling liquor on Sunday comes by way of Indiana. A law passed there in 1816 was designed to keep people focused on Sunday worship. It was the first law passed that fueled the slow progression towards prohibition. Georgia was quick to follow suit and refused to give up on an embarrassing chapter of its history.

A young woman, maybe a hundred pounds over weight, walked in the market. Her t-shirt said, "Don't Mess with My Rebel Flag." She was barefoot.
"Havin't got any of the sticky ones?", she said from the sweets aisle.
"Honey, they ain't here yet," the clerk said.

There is a certain shock in seeing an allegiance to the old south. To me, the 'war of Northern aggression' was an embarrassing chapter in Southern history; a time without grace and of needless death. There was no intellectualism, no romance. Why did some in the deep south hold pride in something so shallow when they could rally around their greatest moments? What was the fascination with the confederacy when the south's past was literally a goldmine of heroes?

I always thought southerners ought to pick up that cornerstone of southern history; the Louisiana Purchase - that time when Americans bargained their way through the dual threats of Spain and France nipping at the South's door; the result of which united the States as a continental power; setting Lewis and Clark on a scientific fact-finding mission across the unknown.

There was an overabundance of obesity here at the market, which was also the social center of town. Pear-shaped loiterers were slooped in chairs that looked about to collapse. One gentleman, his hands filthy with dirt, his face too, showed his teeth at me. He was maybe four hundred pounds, roughly the same weight of a mature male alligator.

I asked him if people ate 'gator' here, but that was an icebreaker. I was curious about the myths and realities of Southern Georgians' apparent preference for game meat, sometimes called roadkill. He snickered at the questions, like he was hiding something. "Some eat snakes," he said. "Some eat armadillas. I can vouch for gator. Tastes lahk chicken. Yont'ny?"

You know why they say everything unusual tastes like chicken? Because when they are talking about unusual, they are talking about birds and lizards - snakes. Alligator does taste like chicken, because from an evolutionary point of view, they aren't that far off. Same goes for rattlesnake, or iguana for that matter. Chickens are just flying iguanas, really. The jump from reptile to bird was just a skip; their organs and bones are quite similar - assumedly, so is their meat.

"And every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth shall be an adomination; it shall not be eaten. Whatsoever goeth upon the belly, and whatsoever goeth upon all four, or whatsoever hath more feet among all creeping things that creep upon the earth, them ye shall not eat..." - Leviticus 11:41-2

You couldn't say that possum tastes like chicken, nor armadillo or catfish. But in southern Georgia, I became fascinated with that myth about backcountry southerners and roadkill. I continued with my questions along the route to the islands; I was so fascinated with the response, I wanted to taste a marsupial dish - it was the ultimate southern dish of poverty.

There are hundreds of published recipes for possum. Some use dark beer, some whiskey. Another calls for Worcester sauce and Tabasco. One is so simple, it has kind of a raw elegance to it: one possum, salt and pepper,six large sweet potatoes.

"It shall be a perpetual statute for your generations throughout all your generations throughout all your dwellings that ye eat neither fat nor blood."-Leviticus 3.17

The bible could be taken as a warning against roadkill. If the fundamentalist (protestants who believe in the literalness of the bible) majority of South Georgia approached the Jewish dietary laws with the same dogma that they use the bible to attempt to revise the laws of science, wouldn't they adhere to the arguable healthiness of the old testament's recipes and notations on what to eat? Why does fundamentalism exert doctrinal exactitude only when it suits itself?

"And the fat of the beast that dieth of itself, and the fat of that which is torn by the beasts, ye shall not wise eat of it."--Leviticus 7.24

I was happy to leave Fargo, on the road again. Just a wanderer in dixieland, heading east. I had three packages of Lunchables, a beautiful Sunday morning, and a paddle. I tuned the radio to find something interesting. Too many stations, on this sunny edge of the swamp, played fundamentalist rants; blurting preachers with bad English. I was relieved to find a country music and NASCAR racing station.

"...So what was it like when you first met Dale Earnhardt?"

"You know, I was really fright-uned at first. He can be real aggressive, you know. He wants to make you know who he is..."

When I stopped at the banks of the Okefenokee to register a canoe, a couple horn-honkers waved me down - the ladies from Atlanta. They had been tailing me since Fargo. "It'll be warm by tonight, but here's a beer."

They left me there with a cold Anchor Steam.

I slipped the canoe into the water, and a few minutes later, I would be gone. There can be nothing as pleasant as paddling through the black tannic waters of the Okefenokee.

I pushed off from the main channel - the Suwanee River, towards a place called Big Water, the enchanted heart of this giant peat bog. The water route is like a road - dressed in overhanging cypress, blooming lilies and southern turtles. The alligators poked their heads from the water by the dozens, snorting like the night moans of cattle, and spanish moss hung like tinsel for Halloween.

The décor of the Okefenokee is neither a moss, nor Spanish, but a peculiar species belonging to the new world plant family Bromeliacae. It's technically a bromeliad; more closely related to pineapples and those brilliant epiphytes that cling to the Jungles of Central America and the South Pacific.

Along the river's edge hung these evil-looking plants called hooded pitchers. Glands in their hoods create secretions that attract insects. A thin translucent 'window' under the hood gives the insect an impression of an escape route. Rather, it's a cover to fool the insect into entrapment; most likely causing it to fall down the trumpet throat and into the enzyme rich watery base of the plant.

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.

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.