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A Drowned Delta

ISSUE:  Autumn 1926

The Santee, throughout the length of its antediluvian Delta, is a tidal river; and when a freshet comes down from the Up Country, the whole Delta and the mainland stretches bordering both rivers are deeply submerged. A drowned Delta is a fascinating place; for at such a time the opportunities for the observation of the wild fife of this strange region are unsurpassed. During the last thirty years I have seldom lost a chance to go abroad over this strangling wasteland, paddling over brakes that I never could have penetrated, moving across submerged marsh-fields that I never could have traversed; penetrating the dim confines of the monstrous swamp that, in ordinary times, T never could have entered. In the old days, before the hills in the northern part of South Carolina were denuded of their timber, these freshets were comparatively mild affairs; but within my own lifetime they have formidably increased in height. The vast volume of yellow water, ramping seaward, bearing upon its bosom innumerable mad rafts of flotsam, is checked by the elemental power of the flood-tides. The result is the backing up of a tremendous head of water. As a consequence, that very country supposed to be inviolate, that mysterious region that concealed thousands of lurkers, of timid fugitives, of crafty stalkers, of wild dealers in shadowy subterfuge—is suddenly stripped naked as it were by the freshet. The flood is a pitiless discloser of the wild folks’ most intimate secrets. Dim haunts are obliterated; obscure avenues of escape are closed; there seems nothing so reticent and retiring but it is starkly divulged. Concealment is a thing of the past. The millennium for the observer has dawned.

At such a time the wild turkeys are not especially concerned. They like water. The rising of the insidious tide washes out for them, and brings to them on little rafts of sedge and on old floating logs all kinds of delectable dainties. I have seen a flock greedily foraging along the edges of the freshet tide, wading unconcernedly out knee-deep to examine floating trash-piles. . . . I have seen turkeys swimming; but I do not think they enjoy the experience much more than chickens do, although they navigate with a special sinuous grace. . . . When the waters become deep, they take to the trees, where for days they feed on the leaf-buds and on the rich variety of berries that the southern swamp offers. If the tide stays up for a week, as it is likely to do unless strong west winds prevail, the great birds may fly to the mainland, a mile or more distant. One of the genuinely impressive sights to me of wild life is to see a huge gobbler launch himself from his lofty perch in some giant short-leaf pine or cypress on one of the ridges of the Delta and beat his way powerfully toward the mainland. In flight these swamp wild turkeys look remarkably black; and this shade contributes to the birds’ splendid appearance. . . . I do not think it would embarrass a wild turkey in the least to fly four or five miles. Once under way, he has great momentum and a normal speed of about forty miles an hour. I have seen one sail to the ground from the top of a tall pine, never once flapping his wings, and alight some two hundred yards from his point of departure. I have watched these majestic birds volplane down a mountainside, sailing more than a mile with as much ease and thrilling precision as that of any soaring hawk, any scouting turkey-vulture, any lordly eagle.

When the deluge visits the Delta., the turkeys are by no means the only ones to take to the trees. Raccoons, caught foraging far from their dens by the stealing waters, will take absurdly obvious refuges. I once caught five half-grown ones in a tiny cypress—their combined weights making the tree sway perilously in the gulping tide. Wildcats, opossums, rabbits, and birds of many sorts will resort to the trees and the bushes and the vines for safety. But not in the least disturbed by the waters are the otter and the mink. Valiant swimmers, incredible divers, possessed of a relative strength that would make an Olympic champion hide a much diminished head, the savage submerging of the Delta does not concern them. The mink, indeed, does not often show himself; and I should not say that the otter is at all eager to attract notice. But the high waters some times enable the observer to see these fascinating and obscure creatures.

On the Santee Delta there are a good many otter. They love the retired creeks, the old half-choked canals, the high mud-banks down which they can slide with the joyous abandon of children. So powerful are they and so aggressive that they really have few natural enemies. I can think of but two that would attack an otter if the latter is mature; a wildcat and an alligator. The grotesque wild razorbacks would fight for economic reasons. But I consider the alligator the otter’s real menace. Lurking grimly at almost every creek-bend, this pitiless marauder is in wild life what the submarine is in naval affairs. . . . For many years I used to be acquainted with a fine male otter that made his home in a “reserve”—an artificial lagoon on the borders of our plantation. One day while in a canoe on this lake I saw my old friend swimming far ahead of me on the inky black water. Close behind him I discerned the head of a bull alligator, apparently gliding stealthily in the wake of the otter. Little more than the alligator’s eyes were showing; and as every observer of this reptilian brigand knows, the alligator can move very swiftly in the water without a sound, and without creating much more disturbance than the merest ripple.

The otter came to a heavy floating island of wampee, on which he dragged himself out glisteningly. His sleek hide winked glossily in the sunshine. Halting on the slot, the-bull alligator mysteriously vanished. But as I never saw the otter again, I do not believe that the ‘gator was more than temporarily thwarted of his prey. . . . Certainly the presence of an alligator is a constant menace to almost every living thing of that vicinity. Fish of all sorts, calves., wild ducks, and other aquatic birds, dogs, hogs, fawns, kids of goats, lambs—all fall victims to this grim marauder, this voracious and promiscuous feeder. An alligator apparently does not care about attacking a full-grown deer. The deer’s ability to protect itself with its sharp lance-shaped hoofs is really formidable; and in the case of a buck, the antlers are menacing. Though in the Low Country of the Carolinas both deer and alligators are exceedingly abundant, and though I have observed both all my life, T have never known one of these powerful reptiles to kill a full-grown deer. Especially in hot weather deer consort t*> those very places where they might easily become victims, to the ‘gator’s slashing tail and crushing jaws, but apparently there is no record of such an attack. I have watched deer swim across alligator-infested waters, into which for a dog to enter would be certain death, but I never saw a doe or a stag molested. Is it because long ago some saurian ancestor had an unfortunate encounter with a spirited buck— and as a result a tradition against molesting the whitetail has become established in alligatordom?

When i was not more than five years old my imagination was stirred by stories of the plantation negroes of what they awesomely termed “the great Jackfield bull.” And my young ears were made to tingle with the deep roarings of this minotaur that used to sing his grim tumultuous solos in Jackfield, one of the lonely stretches of the Delta across from our place. When I was fifteen, a negro boy and I caught this same alligator on a line; and his fourteen feet of scaly length testified to his having been in this world a long time. The largest alligator I ever saw killed was in the South Santee. He measured a little over sixteen feet, and his appearance was distinctly prehistoric—a veritable “dragon of the prime.” His teeth, now in my possession, would make rather respectable tusks for a pigmy elephant-Most Americans presume that Florida is the natural home of the alligator. There are now a great many more in South Carolina, and possibly in Georgia. In the Santee, the Black, the Waccamaw, the Ashley, the Cooper, the Savannah, they are a positive menace; and the stockraiser has every year to charge to profit and loss the damage wrought by these antediluvian monsters. . . . I personally have never known a man to be attacked by an alligator; but I know waters in which it would probably be folly for a man to swim. While wading in the comparatively shallow waters of a lagoon at home, I have had a bull ‘gator stalk me with eerie stealth. He did not tell me what he was about, and I offered him no opportunity to show what his behavior really meant; but, if I interpreted aright his movements and his aspect, he had upon me murderous designs.

So numerous are alligators in all the waters adjacent to the Delta that, from late March to mid-October, it is hardly possible to go any distance along those strange shores without having several come into sight. I used to know intimately two great negro alligator hunters; and with these men I used to traverse many a mile of this beautiful, melancholy, haunted country. Often has Scipio drawn me down beside him at the base of some old cypress on the river-bank, and has set up a whining series of barks such as a cur dog will give in treeing a squirrel. Within a few minutes black heads, eager but secretive, with protruding eye-sockets whence gazed cold lambent eyes, would appear on the river. There would be gray backs awash with the yellow tide, the tips of dark snouts, the tips of dark tails—all stalking the same imaginary luscious prey. Nothing, apparently, is worth so much to an alligator as a dog; and the one sure way of literally whistling this formidable reptile to you is by imitating a dog’s bark. My dusky artist Scipio always barked in the absorbed, distracted, eager manner of a dog that is busily engaged in treeing. The alligator is able nicely to distinguish that kind of detached bark from the trailing or the baying note.

As wild turkeys come to the Delta for sanctuary, so do the deer; in fact, there are always deer on that long wild island. Hounded as they are in that part of the country, deer naturally take to water; and many a stag puts one of the broad rivers between himself and his pursuers. I see on the ancient banks that check the vast wasteland many signs of deer—their tracks, trees on which they have rubbed their itching velvety antlers, dropped horns, great patches pawed bare by the bucks, truculent in the mating season. In ordinary times, so dense is the cover, these deer are not often seen; but when a freshet comes, their presence is divulged, like that of everything else, howsoever evanishing its nature may be. I have found them on the taller ridges, keeping company with a curious assortment of refugees— with wild goats, turkeys, hoary moccasins, savage razorback hogs, trembling wild-eyed cattle. For the far-off mainland I have seen deer swimming manfully. Though powerful swimmers, they go craftily, often coming to rest and for the purpose of reconnoitering, against some half-submerged bush or tussock. Once in flood-time I surprised a big stag on a long bank on which the water was only about a foot deep. So frantic was his getaway that, though the pathway of his escape was quite open to me, I never saw him again! He disappeared in a perfect Niagara of mist and spume and white water that his wild speed threw up about him and behind him. Never was a stormy smoke-screen more effective!

Long residence on the Delta makes the deer burly and heavy. In that wild country they have abundant rich food, they are undisturbed, and they have the kind of environment that their ancestors had. The deer-antlers that I have from the Delta are noble in the massiveness of their architecture, splendid in size, weight, and symmetry. They are also much darker than the horns of the pineland deer; and they have an air of picturesqueness that one may well associate with the extraordinary place whence they come.

There is no human habitation on the Delta now. There may be a duck-hunter’s shack; but far down the river there are evidences of an earlier occupation than any within the memory of man. Here the Cherokees lived and hunted, and their strange mounds are to be seen at “Indianfield,” one of the Delta tracts. Here, too, one encounters the romantic ruin of a peculiar tower on “Moorland”—a “slave-tower,” wherein slaves working the ricefields might take refuge in case of a sudden tropical storm. This vast region was once almost a solid ricefield; and today the banks remain, and the canals and ditches. In the heads of the canals, the “trunk-docks” as they are called, is the most unbelievably good fishing—for bream, bass, green mormouth, gaudy perch. But despite the numbers of their inhabitants, these little lagoons are solitary silent places. No waters in the world are more placid. It seems their nature to be still, to mirror tall pines and mourning cypresses; to dream, and to hold, if in their mystic silence any runes, the songs of ancient and eternal sleep.

The Delta reminds me of Browning’s “House.” I explore it; I study its inhabitants; I go round it and through it. But its mystery remains. It is as elusive and therefore as fascinating as the human spirit.

Often at night I have stood on the tall bluff at “Fairfield,” overlooking the broad reaches of the lower Santee. That vantage-point affords the finest of all views of the tremendous Delta. And the scene is most memorable at night—having about it a vastness, a reticence, a mystery akin to eternity itself. Below me stretch the quiet waters of the great river, mirroring myriads of brilliant stars; northward and southward the mighty stream retires— northward into the mouldering swamp, southward toward the waiting sea. From the Delta I can hear strange cries: the complaining whines of marsh-raccoons; the grunts of the half-wild hogs; the chattering medley made by hosts of wildfowl feeding; the shrill sweet cries of wood-ducks on the wing; the pitiful shriek of something that a fiend of a wildcat has flayingly caught. . . . Far down the river I can hear the boatsong of the negro shad-fishermen, returning from their day of toil. To all these sounds, the heart as well as the ear may be attentive. Beyond the limpid and mystic river stretch the vast waste fields of the Delta country, the lonely woods of that melancholy fair land. But one touch is needed to make the scene magic, and this is supplied by the rising moon. With a sorcery divine she floods the tall bluff with light, casting her streaming argent beauty over the Delta—and upon its sybil-pages writing the scattered dreams of her sorrow and of her glamour.


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