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In the Santee Swamp

ISSUE:  Summer 1926

That sink of iniquitous mud known as the Causeway—a perfect trap one mile long spanning the Delta of the Santee, was my waiting-place on that rainy Sunday. Expecting hunting guests, I had written them that I should meet them on the Causeway. My selection of this particular rendezvous had a delicate subtlety that I had not been careful to explain. As a matter of fact, deep in my heart was a conviction that if my guests were not met on their attempted passage of the Delta, they assuredly would turn back. . . . If mud only had a market value, and the watery pits in roads were saleable, all people living in the Low Country of South Carolina would soon win their economic independence. . . . While waiting in the sleety drizzle for my friends, I built a fire against the base of a huge cypress that had a cavernous hollow at the bottom. So long had this old monarch been standing that I do not doubt that it had witnessed the fierce partisan warfare that Marion, the Swamp Fox, had waged against the relentless Tarleton; for this region was the scene of many an encounter between these two famous commanders, and in the gloomy fastness of the swamps of the Delta Marion often reassembled his men after one of his scattering and fiery attacks upon the Redcoats.

The leaves and twigs in the sheltered bottom of the cypress cavity were dry, and the cheerful ruby and emerald flames were soon dancing in brilliance. Knowing well the nature of the fourteen-mile drive that my hunters had to take before reaching the Causeway, and aware also that a road-worker in that part of the country is as rare as a real live angel, i was prepared to wait a half-day or more. Yet I was content—at ease with that peculiar security which one feels when he is in a region familiar to him since boyhood. Though only three miles from home, I was in the very heart of one of the most strangely wild, one of the most genuinely primeval regions of North America.

My fire was grateful; and it was ambitious—as most fires are. I didn’t want it to burn down the rugged old giant of a tree; but such appeared to be the intent of my urgent flames. They lapped the semi-decayed wood with their jewel-colored tiny tongues; they crackled in secret merriment. I threw a few handfuls of sand on the blaze to curb its lavishness. Smoke poured up the hollow. I looked up to see if sparks were flying out of the top of this natural chimney. A hollow of considerable size was visible some fifty feet up—beyond which the stately treecrest towered—or, as Shelley might put it, was “pinnacled in the intense inane.” My eye caught sight of certain gray drifting wraiths of smoke; then they discerned something far more tangible. The smoke had disturbed a dweller in the ancient hollow, and he was crawling out for fresh air. It was a big male raccoon; and even at the distance that he was from me I could see upon his face his almost human look of patient tolerance, of staid wisdom, of calm acceptance of the changes and chances of this odd experience known as Life. He looked infinitely bored by this rude disturbance of his innocent siesta; but he crawled out on a stout limb with a deft precision that showed that he was fully alert to the peril of the situation. I do not know exactly how to rank wild creatures in social castes; but assuredly the raccoon manifests, even in the face of deadliest danger, a sinuous readiness, a dauntlessness so quiet, so elegant, so oriental in its grace and its intelligence that he should be ranked with the First Families. I do not know an animal that has mastered with greater felicity the difficult art of living.

To see the raccoon climb out of the hollow did not surprise me; for on the Delta this amiable philosopher is very abundant. But I was not prepared for what I next observed: out of the dark aperture there now emerged, with curious little hoppy jerks, an aged gray squirrel—so old and large and weather-beaten as to appear dusky and burly. I do not think that he had denned with the raccoon; the vast hollow probably had inviting ramifications into the massive limbs which could accommodate several wild families of quite different nature. The drowsy squirrel, with a peculiar quick artful sloth, shunted himself warily upward on the tree’s bole, where he hung craftily. After him came another —a sleek soft gray female, its fur fluffy and dry . . . I have observed that even on the wettest day, when wild things are abroad, they manage to keep dry. A deer starts out of a drenched thicket with look as spick-and-span as if he has been lying in sunshine; fox-squirrels playing about on the ground in the rain always by their beautiful dryness belie their dripping surroundings. . . . Following the first squirrel out of the hollow came two others, “to the amazement of mine eyes which did behold them.” The permeating and persuasive smoke had driven from that single hollow a raccoon and four gray squirrels. And, even as I watched the assembling wild company, higher up, from a smaller hole above the big one, a barred owl, blinking portentous eyes, floated off through the misty air on wings “soft as a lady’s sigh.”

By now i had forgotten all about the cold rain and the prospects of a long wait on the lonely Causeway. Indeed, my chief concern became the fear that my friends might arrive before I had had further opportunity to observe some of the abundant wild life about—a pastime that had always been a passion with me. Remarkable as it may seem, almost any of the great den-trees of the dim inviolate Delta swamp might yield a like number of wild inhabitants; in the matter of accommodating the wild folk of that strange and fascinating region the tree in which I had kindled my fire could hardly be called exceptional. Of course, when a wildcat makes his abode in some tolerant patriarch cypress or water-oak or tupelo, he is likely to have the whole tree to himself. What the tiger is to the jungles of India, the stealthy and powerful wildcat is to the wild woods of the South. There is no creature more feared by his brethren of the wild. Nor, when wounded and cornered, is he a mean antagonist for a man. I know of one which weighed more than fifty pounds; and I have shot one that weighed forty-one. Such weight, compact of fierce energy, supple sinew, mighty muscles, and feline craft represents a type of ferocity that is not appreciated unless encountered. . . . I do not mean that the wildcat will attack man; but in the event of such an affair, my stakes would be laid on the creature. I have known two men to be sprung upon by wildcats; but in each case the cat probably misapprehended the identity of his intended victim. In one case the man was crouched in a thick clump of myrtle-bushes calling a wild turkey. Doubtless the wildcat that sprang on him mistook him for the bird that he always covets mightily. When the victim of this so-called “attack” recounted his singular adventure to me, my estimate of him as a caller of turkeys rose considerably. It takes an artist, I think, to deceive a wildcat; for the bay-lynx is himself of deception a master mind.

The Santee, which makes the Delta what it is, comes a long way. The Saluda and the Broad rivers, uniting at Columbia, form the Congaree; this in turn is joined below South Carolina’s capital by the Wateree. The confluence of these two considerable rivers forms the Santee, which flows southeastward to the coast. As it enters the great coastal plain it begins to penetrate lonely, almost inviolate, swamps. Indeed, were an explorer set down unaware on the jungle-grown banks of the mighty Santee in the melancholy Santee Swamp, he might easily believe that he was on the Parana, the Lualaba, or on some mysterious and dusky tributary of the Congo or the Zambesi.

Fourteen miles from the ocean the Santee forks—the North Santee and the South Santee flowing almost parallel to the coast. At no point is the distance between them much more than a mile; yet often the tortuous reed-hung waterways connecting the rivers wind for six miles or more through the strange swamps, the exotic thickety fields, the marshy lush expanses. Everything about the Delta has a certain languor, a certain lethal ease, a lustral basking indolence which is suggestive of the vast uncounted leisure ages of the gods. And I have sensed about this weird and lonely region a certain appealing melancholy, a perpetual spiritual autumn that haunts the imagination; yet the pathos is always relieved by nature’s inimitable charming naivete: overhead will be streamers of funeral moss; yet over the same tree that hangs out those gray banners will climb flauntingly the yellow jasmine, to ring her golden bells.

In this fourteen-mile stretch of wasteland wild life is singularly abundant; and it appears in some of those forms which have a romantic appeal. Perhaps raccoons and squirrels are too common to merit such a classification; but my next friends deserve all that can be said in their commendation.

My fire had become so unruly that I had extinguished it by heaping sand upon it. I then took a little walk down the Causeway, stepping with natural gaucherie from the end of one puncheon-log to that of another. Nearly all of these logs, the “corduroy” supposed to give the road a sound bottom, had been smashed by the timber-wagons that had passed over them, and their frayed ends stuck up craz-ily on either side of the abysmal black ruts. I have heard of wagons in the Argentine that have wheels eight feet high to enable them to touch the bottoms of the roads’ century-old ruts and at the same time to keep their axles clear of the road-bed. In the Carolina Low Country such vehicles would be very pertinent.

A chill misty rain was falling as I warily made my way down the lonely tree-arched roadway. On one side was an old canal that had not been used for sixty years. Out of it grew black gums, tupelos, and hollies of great size. On the Delta I have seen a holly-tree more than fifty feet high; and the largest red-cedars of which I have any knowledge grow there. The banks of the canal were densely fringed with dewberry vines, tall blackberry bushes, and with shimmering stretches of green-and-yellow canebrakes, that seem never to have done with their sibilant whispering converse. Such places harbor innumerable swamp-rabbits; and, when the weather is warm, for every rabbit, at least half-a-dozen cottonmouth moccasins. No snakes were now abroad; though as this region is directly on the Line of Hibernation, where the brumal sleep of certain wild creatures, especially of reptiles, is entirely a matter of the state of the weather, to see them would not have surprised me. Alligators of the Santee country are supposed to hibernate; and they do take naps. But their slumbers are desultory; and I have heard an old bull bellowing his spring song of love early in February. While hunting in January I have found the formidable diamond-back rattler sunning himself before his gloomy den.

The wistful landscape before me was a delicate merging of jasmine-vines festooning roadside bushes, soft rain like a tender veil, glistening foliage—silence and intense woodland privacy save for the intimate gossip of the gentle but insistent shower. Suddenly ahead of me on the Causeway I discerned certain forms—shapes that a true American should be willing to go a long way to see, for they are among our aborigines. A flock of wild turkeys was coming toward me. So light of foot are these great birds, and so deft at stepping and at the avoidance of pitfalls that a typical swamp road of the South is a masterpiece for the accommodation of such wary walkers. Unaware of my presence, the turkeys approached somewhat disconsolately through the misty rain. Motionless beside a tree I awaited their coming. . . . All my life I have noticed that on a rainy day a turkey loves a road. Indeed, so well established is the wild turkey’s practice of following a road in a rain that I have frequently come upon a flock at such a time by doing what I was sure the birds were doing—following some old woodland trail. Turkeys hate to get wet and bedraggled by dripping bushes; and the insistent noise of the rain makes the approach of an enemy possible through brush; consequently in bad weather they will either keep moving in a pathway or else will stand quietly in some sheltered place. I have known them to resort during a rainy spell to the leeward side of a tall river bluff, and also, in the mountains, to rock-overhangs, such as the Indians also used.

These wild birds now on the alleged Causeway had probably been bred on the mainland across one of the rivers; but upon the opening of the hunting season they had repaired to the Delta, to stay there in security until the mating season should return, and the gun of the hunter be no longer heard in the land. Nor could a more perfect range for these splendid birds be found. They have original-growth timber in which to roost; ridge after timbered ridge upon which to wander and to feed; lone fields of marsh in which to forage for luscious seeds of such aquatic plants as the lotus; and, best of all, comparative freedom from all forms of molestation. If an occasional sportsman visits their sanctuary, counting himself fortunate if he safely regains the mainland, he is not likely to come again. A more difficult country to traverse than the Delta is not known to me. But what is poor going for a man may be a boulevard for wild game.

On came my beautiful flock—twenty-six of them, carefully counted. It has been my observation that no wild creature can change its appearance more suddenly and more completely than a wild turkey. At one moment he will be fluffed out in plumage, lazy in appearance, nonchalant, off-guard, strangely barnyardish; the next moment he will be transformed—translated. Alarmed, even in the slightest degree, he will instantly become trim, watchful, gleaming with wild elegance and imminent alertness—a tall, slim, swift, shimmering creature, matchless in wariness. These big birds now coming toward me were for the most part in the relaxed state; but one or two, like sentries, were on guard. They were now within thirty feet, trooping along amiably, picking up acorns or other food, now and then calling with a soft plaintive note. I watched an old hen craftily turning over bits of bark to discover what insects had found refuge thereunder. . . . The wild turkey’s body is not particularly well balanced on its legs; when the bird is heavy, the body rocks and sways when the turkey is walking—and when the bird breaks into a run, this movement becomes exaggerated. Indeed, the bosom seems almost pendulous; and its swaying affects in a marked degree the manner in which the turkey swings its legs in running. Instead of a straight-leg trot, the turkey is inclined to swing his legs outward into rather awkward and absurd arcs. . . . But he covers the ground. On a good many occasions I have tried to run down in the open woods birds with broken wings. My score of catches is by no means a perfect one.

In this flock there were more gobblers than hens. One gobbler, the apparent king of the gathering, was a stately wild thing, weighing, I judged, more than twenty pounds; agleam in the rain was his iridescent plumage. Broad of back was he, profound in depth of body, regal in carriage— the hero, I might well surmise, of many a battle with others of his kind, the winner by strategy of many an encounter with his arch-enemy, man. I noticed carefully that he had three distinct beards, one under the other, the topmost being the shortest. I know not whether the number of beards confers superiority; but certainly this majestic bird’s ensemble was such that he had no need of special symbols to indicate his power. I noticed that his heavy red legs were decorated with felonious spurs; and that his huge feet sank in the mud under his ponderous weight. That a wild thing of such dignity and difficult magnificence should also be possessed of extraordinary craft and speed is one of the genuine wonders of nature.

The turkeys came within fifteen feet of me without apparently suspecting my presence; as a matter of fact, if an observer does not move, any wild thing, however keen its senses may be, if it does not wind him, may fail to see him. The power of vision enabling one living thing to identify another is an exceedingly superior gift; not many men have it. It is an entirely different affair to detect movement, and, with the attention so attracted, to identify. Swift to see motion, wild things (and man as well) may be said to be far less apt at discerning and identifying. I have had deer almost brush past me, when the wind was blowing from them to me, without their apparent noticing of me.

Full into the pathway of the wild flock I now stepped. The effect was curious and instantaneous, and not nearly so electrifying as one might suppose a human being’s projecting himself thus into the midst of a group of the wildest birds might be. It has always seemed to me that the most intelligent wild things seldom flee incontinently. They may hesitate a second for swift calculation, for imminent decision. They escape because they know how. They preserve their lives through the exercise of a virtue that we are inclined to imagine is preempted by man—presence of mind.

On sight of me, about half the birds rose on gleaming wet wings and merely dropped over the old canal into the gloomy woodland beyond. Some of the others crouched and ran into the underbrush fringing the Causeway. Several ran past me down the road, while the remainder dashed back the way they had come. So varying were the avenues of escape selected that I could not help admiring the individualism of the performance. Wild creatures of superior intelligence never act en masse at times of crisis. For example, it is customary for a stag to precede a doe under all ordinary circumstances; but I have noticed that if the buck is being hunted, he will frequently send the doe out ahead of him, or a younger buck—”to take the shot” as old hunters say—or at least to receive whatever surprise is in keeping for the escapers.

A few minutes after the flock had been scattered I heard the old mother from the borders of the mouldering swamp begin calling in a sweet alto. She got plenty of answers; and distinctly I could hear above the drip of the rain certain telltale splashings as the gathering birds ran toward the old bird’s summons. . . . The plaintive call of the wild turkey is singularly suggestive of remoteness, of wildness, of the elemental and the unchanging. We rush from telegraph to telephone to wireless; the wild children of God have 8 radio of their own—ancient, infallible, and quite sufficient for their needs. To me, one of the most alluring calls in all nature is the treble piping of young wild turkeys—a veritable concert on fairy flutes. I have often caught little wild birds no bigger than quail; and as long as I held them they would be vehemently silent. But when released, as soon as the mother would call, they would make the woods sweet with their elfin flutings.

Gathered now, and at ease once more, these turkeys could range northward for seven miles through lonely wood and solitary marsh, by languorous estuary and lost lagoon; southward they might pass for seven lonelier miles until they came to Cedar Island, the wooded tip of the Delta. Not in either passage would they encounter human habitation; and the only human being they might meet would be a man like me, a waiter in the rain on the forsaken Causeway—or perhaps a prowling negro hunter searching the ridges of this wilderness for his supply of Christmas bacon.


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