ExcerptExcerpt appearing in Wild Earth, January 2005
Pinhook: Place that Holds the World Together
by Janisse Ray
In the south of Georgia, endless pine flatwoods part to make way for a great swamp, Okefenokee, in whose thickets and bays live a population of black bear so healthy that the straight, sandy roads of that territory are crossed and criss-crossed by the imprints of their pads. Often they are glimpsed at dusk, disappearing into titi thickets. The bears ignore a delineation drawn in 1821, after the Spaniards conceded, that marks the boundary of Florida. And they ignore Highway 94 that changes to Highway 2 at the state line, built to connect minuscule Fargo, Georgia to equally small St. George, Georgia, after passing briefly through a corner of Florida. The bears traverse freely through country mostly alien and uninhabitable for humans, where the world yet belongs to the processes of rain, sun, water, fire, and wind. The names of the places where they forage, they mate, they birth, and they nurse their young in the mysterious patterns of black bear society, are not the names we have given these locales: Grand Prairie, Sego Bay, Sandy Drain, Sawgrass Head, Little Suwannee. Knowledge of these places is contained permanently in a vast and secret black bear culture.
Many miles south of the immense swamp, the one named Okefenokee, lie the pine flatwoods of north-central Florida, interrupted by branches and bays, that we know as Osceola.
Okefenokee Swamp, Osceola National Forest.
The areas of these two wildlands, which are owned by the people of the United States, total over half a million acres.
Between them occurs Pinhook Swamp—a pocosin—connected to Okefenokee by sluggish Breakfast Branch and to Osceola by Impassible Bay.
Pinhook Swamp. The land between.
It is 170,000 acres of dreary dismal. A giant piece of ground too deep for a human to wade, too shallow for a boat to draw. Too tangled for passage. Full of mosquitoes and yellowflies. Place that holds the world together. A natural feature full of natural features. Some of the last real wilderness in the South.
Pinhook's fate has been to be ignored, even unnamed. Not that it wasn't logged. Like most of the country, it was. But somehow Pinhook Swamp never lost its wild character, its mystery, its incomprehensibility, its elegance. The loggers logged and left. The trees returned.
Nobody knows much about it. Except the bears.
Holding the World Together
A pocosin is a tract of low swamp, usually wooded, a shrubby bog that inherits its name from the Algonquin word "poquo," meaning to open out or widen. It's also called a dismal, or a "swamp on a hill."
Most of Pinhook is dismal.
Walk out into the pocosin and you will sink to your knees in a peaty muck. Fetterbush, or hurrah bush, tugs at you, and the vicious smilax, or greenbriar, threatens to tear out your eyes and hair. For a while you can fight your way through gallberry, titi, more than one kind of native blueberry, and Virginia willow. Stop and lather up your hands with poor man's soap (sweet pepperbush), which foams when rubbed with wet hands.
Each step will leave a mark in the mats of sphagnum, which grow thick and wide, happy with constant inundation. Far above the shrubs you will see an occasional slash pine or the more unusual pond pine.
You won't go far before you have to beat a not-so-hasty retreat.
Pocosins are defined by a flat topography, a hydrology driven by rainfall, and organic, peaty soils. Waters typically flow outward from the center of pocosins, eventually forming headwaters of streams near the outer boundaries. Because organic soils tend to hold water longer than mineral soils, pocosins traditionally burned much less often than upland forests, or every 15–30 years. Even so, fire is essential to this community since it prevents the formation of a closed-canopy wetland. They are critical breeding sites for amphibians.
Pocosins and their counterparts, Carolina bays, the mystifying tear-shaped depressions oriented northwest-southeast that occur in the sandy soilds of the Southeastern coastal plains, originally made up about 3.5 million acres in North and South Carolina and Georgia. Less than one-third of them are intact, another third have been irrevocably altered. Most pocosins and Carolina bays have been converted to farmland, tree plantations (bedded pines), or peat mines. The southernmost Carolina bays can be found in the environs of Pinhook.
The southeastern United States has a higher number of endangered ecosystems than any region of the country. More than 30% are critically endangered.
Crisscrossed through the pocosin are strands, bays, and pockets of true swamp, forested by loblolly bay, blackgum, red maple, sweet bay, and pond cypress. Some of these are cypress domes, called so because older, taller trees grow in the middle, younger trees to the outside. Occasionally the pocosin pauses for savannas, which are wet, grassy prairies maintained by periodic fires in dry years. Wet prairies are often green with Virginia chain fern and rush, and comely with pitcher plants, sedges, bladderworts, green arum, rose pogonia, maidencane, red root, and sphagnum.
Slash and pond pines grow in the wet pinewoods, above the familiar understory of saw palmetto, gallberry, fetterbush, scattered wax myrtle, tarflower, and dangleberry. In the highest and driest pinewoods, longleaf pine may be found, although it probably was never a common species. The majority of Pinhook's pinewoods have been converted to slash pine plantations, and many portions were drained, logged, and re-planted with row-crops of trees.
Unsurprisingly, Pinhook Swamp supports historic civilizations of river otter, bobcat, mink, weasel, gray fox, sandhill crane, migratory waterfowl, and swallow-tailed kite, species associated with the rich wetlands of the South. Most people, however, would wade a few feet into the muck and conclude that Pinhook Swamp isn't good for much besides holding the world together.
The morning I first saw Pinhook was one of those tentative March days, before spring arrives in lustful earnest, when everything has a secret it bursts to tell. Some of the flora, unable to wait, has crept out of the tamped-down place it has been all winter, and, in the calmness of a risk successfully executed, skips and dances bright colors across the land.
Clouds of yellow jessamine float among the tops of sapling trees, flame azalea sweep pink through the floodplains, fields are washed in sheep sorrel burgundies and toadflax lavenders. Red-shouldered hawks whistle over the bottomlands, and wild hogs root along the shoulders of the roads. Black willow catkins emerge yellow-green.
My husband, Raven, and I have driven from our family farm near the Altamaha River in Appling County, Georgia, about an hour north of Okefenokee Swamp, through the eagerness of spring. We have motored past houses and farms, one after another, past clearcuts strung like giant beads on an awful necklace, past churches with their parking lots devoid of trees. We have driven through the little towns of south Georgia, Alma and Waycross and Homerville, with their attempts at industry and their desires to grow. The entire route is so civilized, so humanized, so domesticated.
We are on our way to Olustee, Florida, where we are to meet Larry Thompson, activist and long-time ally of Pinhook Swamp, [and William Metz, the current district ranger of the Osceola.] We will enter the wild pocosin from the Florida side.
Into the late 1800s the coastal plains of Georgia and Florida were a great plate, engraved with sandhill crane, fox squirrel, spotted turtle, panther, black bear. Diamondback rattlesnake, Suwannee bass, parrot pitcher plant. Dusky seaside sparrow, snowy egret, red wolf. As humans arrived, they dictated their patterns onto a landscape that had been designed by natural forces. Railroads came, trams were constructed into swamps. Trees were severed from their roots, ditches were dug. Forests disappeared. Savannas were plowed under.
Fragmentation is what happens when a glass platter falls. Except that it happens slowly, incrementally. In the moment the first tree fell did the plate begin to crack? At what point did it lay broken at our feet?
[After meeting up with Larry and Will at U.S. Forest Service headquarters for the Osceola in Olustee, we pack into Will’s sea-green Forest Service jeep and travel a long way through national forest.] We're really in the country, tall pines all around, no signs of human occupation. Oh, glory. This land is our land. We cross the St. Marys River, which runs from Okefenokee Swamp to the Atlantic Ocean, we pass East Tower, used for spotting forest fires, then cruise through tiny Taylor, Florida, with its teensy Voting House, two soda machines out front, and its toy Fire Department, community playground out back. After many miles we veer onto Eddy Grade.
Although the maps call Eddy Grade an "improved road," it is sandy dirt and pitted with potholes. Frequently it is eroded by troughs of tannic water, created by overflowing swamp on either side. The full ditches are big enough to be called creeks. Now most of what we're passing through is Forest Service land that is not forest at all, but cutover pineland replanted in rows of slash pines, all about twelve feet tall.
"This was a recent acquisition," Will says.
"It has been logged many times," Larry says. By 1898 the railroad connecting Valdosta, Georgia to Jacksonville, Florida was completed, and areas between Okefenokee and Pinhook were logged for the first time at the turn of the twentieth century. The view from the train then, I have read, was a landscape of stumps. Intense logging was taking place deep in Pinhook Swamp in the 1930s. It has continued to this day, since the landowners of Pinhook have been timber companies. Pinhook was company land. An industrial landscape superimposed on a rare wild one.
"Timber companies wanted to log, sell, and get the hell out of the lowlands,” Larry continues. “We want to help them get out."
After some time we turn again onto a sodden road barely wide enough for the vehicle and drive out into the swamp along a tram, built to haul logs out of Pinhook. It is straight as a Southern Baptist deacon. The tram has not been used recently enough to wear tracks in the brown grass that grows along it, now waterlogged, nor to keep the flanking vegetation at bay.
A Suwannee cooter drops off a log protruding from a shallow pond.
"A turtle!" Will exclaims. "Did you see that?"
Fragmentation is the separation of habitat in a landscape. It means chopping a wild place into pieces, or slicing bites off its edges, or putting a road or other divider through the heart of it so that it becomes a conglomerate of smaller, less functional pieces. In simple math fragmentation is long division.
Fragmentation usually proceeds along a continuum that ranges from intact, functional habitat, to a fragmented forest, then an archipelago of forest-patches in a sea of development, and finally to a single isolated piece of natural habitat desperately salvaged. We see fragmentation mostly from airplanes. Fly over Orlando or Anchorage or Pittsburgh or Mexico City and you will see landscapes broken and pierced, so much so that almost none of them remain as they were. Flying over British Columbia, where logging is intense, the primeval forest, kept wild and unbroken until so recently, is down to naught in places. Double ought. Even flying at 20,000 feet the clearcuts are mammoth pocks.
"You've heard of greenbelts?" asks Larry. "Greenbelts make most folks happy. People want what they call 'open space' in urban areas, such as rails-to-trails, riverwalks, small parks. Pinhook is not a greenway. This is one large, functioning ecosystem, unparalleled in the Southeast."
"Corridors of the last resort," I say.
He pauses, and turns in the front seat enough that I can see his devilish grin. "A greenway is to a wildlife corridor what a Venetian is to a Venetian blind," Larry says. "This is habitat."
We're motoring slowly enough to hear a pig frog calling, oink oink. Duck potato, a native perennial, spears up through the ditches, blooming white triangles with yellow centers, like little kites flying on green tethers above the popping water. We spook a great egret. We see a slate-blue bird looking for an easy meal in a shallow pool. Larry calls it a "B.B. Kingbird."
"They're singing the blues," he says. It's a little blue heron.
Really, not many birds are flying and singing, since migration has not fully begun. But it's spring now and the songbirds will be coming back from even-more-southerly parts, hauling the sun on their backs. Pinhook has been designated an "Important Bird Area" by the American Bird Conservancy.
I spy an unusual patch of spangle far ahead on the tram, a quarter mile away. We journey toward it, slowly, on account of the state of the path. "Is that a deer?"
How may times I have longed for eyes of kingfishers, clarity despite distance? Able to see minnows in the cloudy tides of salt creeks? Or for those of wild turkeys, that know which speck in the heavens is a hawk and not a buzzard? I rely deeply on binoculars. They are difficult to focus in motion but I bring them up now. It is a deer. Closer, we are able to ascertain, unaided, a doe's blurry outline blending with brush. She waves her flag of peace and disappears off the road. Wherever she is, her hooves are wet, and she presses greenery apart to make room for her body.
Will cuts the engine and disembarks. We pile out into the bright, early-spring sunshine, four people unleashed in an unscrolling, unbridled wilderness, onto one contiguous mat of green and water. The sunshine is not yet saffron, not even full lemon yellow, but a weak colorlessness, as if the Carolina jessamines extract most of the available gold from the air.
Will has been quiet so far, absorbed in driving and in his search for wildlife. He has answered any question I've asked, but has volunteered little to no information on his own. In open air, he transforms.
"This is the heart of the Pinhook," he announces grandly. He gestures excitedly, master of ceremony. "This is what the Pinhook is all about." He becomes charged, buoyant, even oratorical. "It's functional. It's intact. The processes and structure are here as they should be. This is one last rare, intact, functioning ecosystem." I smile to myself because Will's argument sounds like a verse of rap. I look out over the forgotten pocosin.
"I love this place because it's not the Everglades," Will says. He bounces a few steps and stretches his arms wide. "It doesn't need to be restored." He gets a look that says, That's all there is to say, really.
Pinhook reminds me too of the Everglades—wet, expansive, savanna-like. I can see that the land, at least this spring, is one flowing sheet of water, like the Glades. The water moves east, I will learn, toward the Middle Prong of the St. Marys River, which pours out its banks across the shady, lovely, palmetto-and-wild-azalea bottomlands, joining sheets of water. The water travels through the pine flatwoods like it hasn't done in at least a decade, with the cleansing avail of flood.
But Will is wrong. Pinhook does need restoration. Maybe not here, where the shrub-bog is intact, but to get here we have driven through miles of unnatural pine plantations, planted on raised beds of dirt. All that, the body of Pinhook, will have to be returned to the way it was.
Here in the heart of Pinhook the principal groundcover is a head-tall snarl of shrubs, instead of the sawgrass of the Glades. I climb atop the Jeep for a better look. Around us the vegetation —titi and myrtle and fetterbush and gallberry —is broken occasionally by a slash or a pond pine. Pond pines are new to me. They retain needles much further down their trunks than other pines. They're scrawnier, shorter. The sky is wide open, full of clouds, uninterrupted by power lines, buildings, and billboards, waiting for a painter. Larry has spotted a mockingbird.
"Mockingbird? I can see one of them in a parking lot," I tease him from the vehicle roof. "Where are the sandhill cranes and the wood storks?"
"I wish I could call them up," he replies. "I'd make a lot more money for the bird-a-thons. But they're here, even if we don't see them."
Pinhook Swamp is serenely beautiful in an aloof kind of way. It's like a whale, so ancient and so colossal and so fulfilled by its own life that it cares nothing of yours. Pinhook does not sweep out its green arms to embrace you. It doesn't even look your way, though you turn and marvel and ooh and click your camera this way and that: more or less sky, trees framing the distance or taking center stage, more or less light. In the macro, time-lapse field of blindness, the white fists of fetterbush open. Bees lick pollen off the five stamens inside a jessamine's throat. Tongue of sundew closes around a gnat. A field of water flies eastward.
I have been writing as if to suggest that all of Pinhook has been tucked away inside a safe deposit box, and now we can rest easy, assured our retirement is secure.
I have misled you.
"When you say Pinhook Swamp, people either have never heard of it or they say, 'Oh, that's been saved already!'" says Larry. "It hasn't been saved. We have a contiguous corridor, but we figure only 70% of the area has been protected."
"Once you get 70% saved, between state and federal ownership," Larry continues, "the danger is, you think, 'This is wonderful and you quit.' You say, 'I'm so far ahead I'm going to take a rest.' You say, 'We've got over half. Let's not worry about the other half.' No. We have to worry about the other half. Pinhook is still easily purchasable. We're not talking about private tracts of land. Those are timberlands. These were lands that a hundred years ago no one wanted. Wastelands. This is not hundreds of landowners. Only a few. Now's the time to buy it, while it's still relatively uninhabited."
I don't interrupt him. "I admit, this is a lofty goal," he says. "We have the chance here to do something really grand. Are we going to let this area die the death of a thousand cuts?" Larry is full of proverbs. "One more, one more, one more? No, let's protect one more, one more. The way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time."
I gaze around and around and around, then look back at Larry. He is focused far out in the distance, toward the scribbled horizon.
What can I know of Pinhook? Few have explored or studied this nether-country. There is little we can read about it. Visitors and locals have forayed into it, prospecting or moonshining or hunting or looking for lost dogs, but none have approached the heart of Pinhook Swamp. Neither can I. I can see it with my eyes, from the vantage of a car-top along a tram. I can hear its flies buzz and its red-bellied woodpeckers pound against fire-dead pines. But I can go no farther. I must stand, gazing at the tangled low-country, and know it to be the unknown: a land yet of secrets, a place untamed. It is a continent beyond us.
Lay of the Land
It is important to understand why things are the way they are. Which is history.
Osceola was proclaimed national forest on July 10, 1931. It is 158,225 acres, managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service.
Okefenokee, the largest freshwater swamp in the United States (not counting the Everglades and Atchafalaya) currently covers 438,000 acres, or 660 square miles. In the late 1830s the last of its Creek and Seminole inhabitants were killed or ousted, and until 1889 it belonged to the people of Georgia. In that year Georgia sold the swamp to the Suwannee Canal Company for fourteen and a half cents an acre; Atlanta capitalist Harry Jackson intended to drain it. That project died with Jackson and in 1908 the swamp was sold to Hebard Lumber Company, which proceeded to log it. In the late 1930s, Jean Harper, wife of naturalist Francis Harper, who first entered the swamp with a Cornell University biological expedition in May 1912 and who returned to live for months at a time with his family there, beseeched President Franklin D. Roosevelt to purchase Okefenokee Swamp in order to spare it. Jean Harper was an acquaintance of the president, having tutored his children. In 1937 Roosevelt declared Okefenokee Swamp a national wildlife refuge, to be managed by the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service. Ninety percent of Okefenokee, a portion of which extends into Florida, is official wilderness, the largest area east of the Mississippi.
Connected to Okefenokee on its north end is 35,708-acre Dixon State Forest, encompassing 15,000 acres of the swamp, around the area of Cowhouse Island. Dixon, a wildlife management area, is managed by the Georgia Forestry Commission. The state forest, purchased in 1955, contains about 1,200 acres of natural pine stands, more than 2,000 acres of hardwood bottomland, and 18,000 acres of planted pine. The timber is cut in 40-year rotations, 250–300 acres a year, with no cut bigger than 70 acres. Laura S. Walker State Park, deeded to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, is entirely within the boundaries of the state forest—it is devoted to recreation and includes a golf course.
So Dixon is cut. So it contains a golf course. Bear breed there in the heads and thickets. If Dixon State Forest is wild enough for bear, it's wild enough for me.
Osceola's 158,225 plus Okefenokee's 438,000 equals 596,225. Add Dixon's 35,708 and the total is 631,933. Count what's saved so far in Pinhook—about 120,000 acres—and we have a wildland corridor with a grand total of 751,933 acres.
751,933 acres. Heading toward a million. Bigger than the land area of Rhode Island. A million acres for river otters, black-crowned night herons, hoary bats, two-toed amphiumas, eastern chicken turtles, round-tailed muskrats, and Cooper's hawks. For sandhill cranes and black bears. For the possibility of red wolves, whooping cranes, and Florida panthers.
Putting a landscape back together is a lot like doing a big jigsaw puzzle. Working a jigsaw puzzle, I start with the straight-edged pieces, so I get a frame first. For a landscape, you can't draw a big rectangle on a map and start filling in. Restoration is more arbitrary. You start with what wildland you have. Then you look for spare pieces scattered about, that match what you already have. If one fits, you plug it in, and then find another with the same thread of stream, and another. Breakfast Branch. Run Swamp. Moorehead Bay. Moccasin Swamp. Middle Prong of St. Marys River. Until you begin to see the shapes of the missing pieces, and you search for those shapes.
The more pieces in a puzzle, the more fragmented a place, the harder to put it back together. In the case of Pinhook, the pieces were large, and there weren't many of them, so the puzzle has been relatively easy, an intermediate puzzle. Easier, say, than reconstructing the tropical hammock that was the Florida Keys.
You connect one axis, until you build a wildland bridge. You close a gap. Then you fill in the rest of the frame. Piece by piece, the puzzle is assembled, reassembled, until it forms a picture.
Later, other pieces you didn't even remember were missing will come. Naturally. The trees every year grow taller and wider. The roads heal over. Ditches erode and fill. Fire returns. More land gets added along the sides, buffers and wildland and corridor. Songbirds rebound. Black bears reterritorialize.
The picture grows more beautiful.
Total, to date, 120,000 acres of Pinhook Swamp have been placed in public ownership for safekeeping.
When completed, Okefenokee Swamp to Osceola National Forest—O2O—will become the largest protected wildlife corridor east of the Mississippi. Give me a moment here to applaud, to whoop and holler, to skip out from behind my writing desk and do a little dance in the study.
I'd like to get to the middle of all that ground and lay down and rest awhile.
Janisse Ray grew up in a Georgia junkyard where she learned to love the vanishing long-leaf pine ecosystem, a tale told in her award-winning book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. This essay is excerpted from her forthcoming book, Pinhook: Wildland of Possibility and Hope (available from Chelsea Green Publishing, April 2005, www.chelseagreen.com ). A naturalist, environmental activist, and winner of the 1996 Merriam Frontier Award, she now lives in Vermont.