Wednesday, May 11, 2022

In the Swamp

My An Arkie's Faith column from the May 11, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The sun shone brightly as we drove towards Bayou Black in Gibson, Louisiana. Our destination was Bayou Black Airboat Swamp Tours. An airboat swamp tour has been on my bucket list for many years, and today I was going to fulfill that wish. We made our way down a dirt road past the Greenwood Gator Farm with our Hyundai dragging across the tall speed bumps. A gravel parking area and a dilapidated dock were at the end of the road. We parked the car and walked to the pier to wait for our tour.

Even though it was only April, the Louisiana sun beat down on us as we waited. Before the airboat arrived, we could hear it in the distance. The big-block Chevy V-8 and huge propellor were very loud. As the airboat pulled alongside the dock, a ripple of anticipation ran through my body. We climbed aboard the airboat, and the captain handed each one of us a pair of noise-reduction ear muffs. We slowly made our way from the dock through a channel out onto Bayou Black. The bayou looked like a river with cypress trees draped in Spanish moss all along the banks. 

As we made our way down the bayou, suddenly, the airboat veered into a waterway choked with aquatic plants. But the boat skimmed along on top of the plants that completely covered the water. The sensation was almost like boating on land. As soon as I saw the swamp, I fell in love with it. I felt like I was in a surreal dream. The swamp is a magical place filled with unique wildlife, history, culture, and mystery. 

We made our way deeper into the swamp, and the captain would occasionally stop the boat so that he could tell us about the wildlife and plants in the area. He knew where every alligator's territory was and had named them all. Often the alligator was barely visible among the duckweed, and the captain used a long pole to tap the gator so that it would move and everyone could see it. Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Anhinga were often seen silently winging through the swamp. I was excited to see the colorful Roseate Spoonbills. 

We made our way out of the thick swamp, where the captain had to carefully navigate between the cypress trees into a much more open area. Just off to my right were several very tall dead trees. At the top of one of them was a large nest. An osprey soared overhead, and before long, it landed on the nest. We sat quietly for a few minutes and watched the osprey before heading to another part of the swamp. 

The area we are now in is dark and thick and swarming with birds ruffling in the moss-covered cypress trees. The vegetation is so dense that alligators are hard to spot. Suddenly we burst out onto what seems like land and skim over the tops of plants, grasses, and even flowers. Then, suddenly we are out on what looks like an open lake with beautiful blue water. I can hardly believe my eyes. The captain cuts the engine and lets us sit quietly on the water for a few minutes soaking in the beauty. He tells us that next, he is taking us to a special place where hundreds of birds come to nest this time of the year. As we approach, we see the sky filled with birds. Egrets and herons are everywhere, creating a symphony of cacophony. We spend several minutes watching the scenes before us in awe.

As we leave the birds, we make our way along an area with tall grasses and reeds, then the boat seems like it is traveling on land, and we are following a giant egret as it flies gracefully through the air. The boat stops, and the captain points out a large area of native Louisiana swamp iris. For centuries the iris has been a resident of Gulf Coast swamps and bogs, admired for its airy grace and beauty. The beautiful water iris are in full bloom. 

As the tour is nearing the end and we are racing down Bayou Black, I sit with my noise-reducing ear muffs on, and my mind begins to wander. As I daydream, I think about the general perception that most people have of swamps: Dark, gloomy, creepy, and scary. But I have just spent some of the best hours of my life seeing exquisite beauty in the swamp. "Why are swamps considered so ugly and scary," I wonder? I think back to a comment my wife made. She referred to Pastor John Taylor, who had grown up in Southern Louisiana. He always spoke with such loving memories of the swamp and assured his listeners that there would be a swamp in heaven. "When you get to heaven, find the swamp, and I will be there," he would say. Thinking of what Pastor Taylor had said, my wife remarked, "it is so beautiful; I'm sure there will be swamps in heaven." 

Swamps are necessary and provide a much-needed buffer from hurricanes. Wetlands and barrier islands provide a protective barrier from strong winds and hurricanes: every 2.7 miles of wetlands absorbs one foot of storm surge. Swamps are also natural pollution control. Because swamps remove nutrients, pesticides, and sediments from surface waters, they are called the "kidneys of the landscape" since, like kidneys, they filter out harmful materials. In Job 8:11 (GW), the Bible asks us, "Can papyrus grow up where there is no swamp? Can rushes grow tall without water?

I'm sure that you have heard the political mantra, "drain the swamp." Books and movies depict swamps as spooky, dangerous places. But my wife and I found it to be beautiful. Why the difference? If swamps are so essential and valuable, why are they viewed negatively? The airboat and its captain made the difference between a spooky, scary swamp and a beautiful, bucket list fulfilling tour. If the boat captain had tossed me into the swamp and left me, the swamp would have immediately turned into a terrifying place for me. But when I was seated on the airboat with an experienced boat captain in control, the swamp was beautiful. 

Gentle Reader, the life you have been given is beautiful. But without an experienced guide, it can be scary. You were not created to follow your path through this life alone. Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT) says, " Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take." All of us need a guide. There are so many unknown paths in life; we need an excellent guide to help us know which way to go. Today, ask God to be your guide. Then you can say, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me." Psalms 23:4 (NKJV) You can feel safe and secure even when life becomes a swamp.


Photos courtesy of Steve Dutcher

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