Monday, November 2, 2009

Gentlemen of the Marsh

    The following will conclude our unit on poetry. There will be a test at the end of the semester.

    Some traits in life are acquired, such as a love of poetry, others are inherited. There is a genetic factor inherent in anyone with a South Carolina heritage that predisposes one to love swamps and marshes, slow moving waters, Spanish moss,  the smell of plough mud. My son, Christopher,  inherited this gene, as did I, and we found it necessary to succumb to the call of the swamp on an annual basis. We would take yearly jaunts to explore our nation's great swamps and backwaters...the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, the Florida Everglades, the lowcountry marshes and backwaters of South Carolina. When travelling, we would compete to see who could be the first to spot South Carolina's official state tree, the palmetto, or  to site Spanish moss dripping from a live oak, to spy yellow jessamine crawling up a loblolly pine,  to get a whiff of pungent marsh. That aroma of plough mud, or as I called it, the sweet smell of heaven and the greatest scent on earth, would prompt me to turn off the air conditioner, roll down the windows, and fill my nostrils with the earthy fragrance of marsh mud, a healing aroma.
      Christopher is a true swamp rat, loving the still black waters, the centurian cypress trees and their knobby knees, the alligators waiting for their prey, the stalking heron, the greyman's beard that  brushes your arm as you canoe silently through the swamp. He understood that having a twin sister with a physical disability meant that I had to spend more time helping her, but he accepted this graciously and with an understanding that must come from the secret bonds of twinship. I made a commitment to him, however, that each year he and I would take a swamp trip, just the two of us, with binoculars and cameras, Tilly hats and Tevos, fishing rods and mosquito repellent, for a week of exploring whatever backwater or marsh we could find. We would spend all day searching for Roseate spoonbills, which fly the highest of all birds, or seeking out the rookeries of wood storks, herons and egrets,  the slides of stalking alligators, the towering nests of eagles and osprey. At night, we spent hours driving deep into the bowels of the Everglades, or circling backcountry Georgia roads through the Okeefenokee,  trying to spot the rarely seen panther. I would try my hardest to convince Christopher that with thousands of acres of swamp, it would be almost impossible to catch a glimpse of one of the fewer than one hundred cats left, but he was determined to beat the odds. We are still searching.
     One morning, we got up early to hike around a pond tucked into a marsh deep in the Everglades. It was quiet, the sun just rising, the birds  beginning their morning chorus.  We watched small brown marsh rabbits enjoy a breakfast of tender grass, nibbling quietly on the sweet stalks growing along the edge of the trail. The great blue herons were beginning their dance of parry and thrust, searching for a morning meal of fish or shrimp hidden among the edges of the pond. As we rounded a bend in the path, we encountered a site that was one of nature's rare treats, reserved for the early riser, the dedicated observer. It was a hidden moment in time, a natural routine not usually seen by human eyes. Three racoons were waddling down a path, side by side, like three old men heading to town.  They followed a well-worn trail to the pond's edge, and began their morning rituals of washing up before breakfast. It was a simple act, but stunning in it's symmetry as the trio moved in perfect unison, nodding and bowing to each other as they bathed. We observed them as they completed their morning toiletries, completely oblivious to our presence before  they turned and ambled back down the trail, communicating with each other in the secret language of animals. Upon returning to Richmond, Christopher captured this memory in a poem, which I will share with you  in the hopes that the love of poetry, and nature, will be passed on.

Gentlemen of the Marsh
by Christopher H. Daly, jr.

I ambled slowly through the marsh
     The rising sun gleamed gold.
The heron's cry was shrill and harsh,
     The gator's stare was cold.

When in the reeds I found a path
     I did not know its cause.
Perhaps strange creatures once had passed;
     Then movement made me pause-

Three bandits, masked in black and gray
     Stumbled side by side
As they approached they looked away
     And journeyed to the tide.

Then not concerning me at all
They washed their small black paws
     As if three noble little lords
      Preparing for a ball.

They let each other have his turn-
    Each tried to look his best,
But at his heart each one did yearn
    To shine more than the rest.

And as they washed themselves with glee
   The truth was soon revealed to me:
The mask upon their face was harsh
But they were gentlemen of the marsh.

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