Shadow of the Levee | Steve Lyda

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For most people, getting lost is not a pleasant experience. I prefer to call it losing one’s bearings, getting turned around, or — even better — losing site of a landmark. I had lost sight of the river bridge at Greenville and forgotten that most delta towns along US Highway 61 roll up the road signs and streetlights at dark. It was serious dark, no moon, no high-tech GPS, just miles of pea-gravel road between farm hamlets and thousands of acres of flat and fertile soybeans and cotton. The Delta had not changed since I’d been a graduate forester back in 1977; I was just regaining my bearings. My wife and I had gone sight-seeing at dusk en route to Nebraska from Mobile, Alabama – a two day trip, and a long way from the Gulf of Mexico. She told me she didn’t mind a detour from the main highway to see the countryside that I’d fallen in love with in my youth, but she changed her mind when the black curtain fell. Finally, I decided to stop at a crossroad gas station with a large Mountain Dew sign to swallow a bucket of pride and ask for directions. I shut the engine off to a silence as deep as the Mississippi. Soon, the only sound that penetrated the muggy air was the low western rumble of tugs and tow boats working the river. I was back, back along the winding muddy miles of commerce that I had not heard nor seen in over thirty years. Within the hour, we were over the Benjamin Humphreys Bridge and headed to Fort Smith, Arkansas, but I was lost in a timeless memory of oxbow lakes, hundreds of river bends and points, and John Deere.

The Delta Region is not the river delta. It is approximately three hundred miles north of the Head of Passes at New Orleans and Venice, Louisiana. The region is shared by both Arkansas and Mississippi, and between the sheets (or levees) on each side of the river is a vast bottomland forest which is measured in square miles instead of acres. It’s best not to go in there on foot as a rookie forester without a hand-compass or a rabbit’s foot in your timber cruiser vest. Everything looks alike. Faulkner’s Big Woods is a myriad of cuts, bayous, and old channels, all overlaid with a fine layer of rich silt, and losing your bearings leads to getting turned around. Getting turned around leads to getting really lost, and getting really lost leads to the fundamental panic and soul searching that leads to praying to a higher spirit. The ninety-eight miles of mainline levee on the Mississippi side covers three delta counties and ranges in height from twenty-four to fifty feet, complete with a topped-off road, grassy banks, and all the ospreys that a guy wants to look at. The river inside this border can be a fickle and nasty foe; sometimes flooding, many times changing courses on a whim, taking valuable hardwood saw timber along with it. As always, there are the new non-navigable islands and sandbars which quickly grow over in dense stands of pioneer willow and cottonwood. One state’s accretion is its sister state’s loss until the river dynamics switch and the process reverses. Timber is harvested on a dry year and hauled to the levees or floated out in rafts when the spring floods arrive. Before the levee system, river towns and landings were subject to nature and many times left high and dry or flooded to the rooftops. This is a very simple view of the very complex Mississippi Alluvial Plain, with one item of special note: it is North America’s greatest inland waterfowl migration route, in good years and bad.

My job with the state as a graduate forester was to assist landowners in managing their timber resources and wildlife concerns in the Northwest region of the state, and I was sent to Tunica County. The county seat of Tunica had a population at that time of about 9,000 people and it was dusty in the summer, cold in the winter. Rick Bragg’s words were perfect: If I am ever going to rob a bank in a small town, I would rob it at eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning. There were – of course – humble churches on almost every township road with both black and white congregations, but seldom mixed. Large women dominated the front pews and fanned the heat with turkey tails or the Tunica Times Democrat as the men gathered outside at the pickups, axle-deep in gumbo mud, smoking and waiting for the preaching part. Tunica was an isolated rural river town less than an hour drive south of Memphis, which was its blessing. Everyone had some kin or some interest in Memphis. During the week, the center of life revolved around the federal post office unless your face was on a poster, or you owed someone money after the State-Ole Miss Game. I took up my residence in a rental house south of town in the shadow of the levee. The tiny community of Austin was the thriving county seat in 1847 and held its own for forty years till the river changed course and left the commerce landing with nothing more than a scattering of great plantation oaks with old mossy beards. My companion was a curly-coated golden labrador, less than a year old, and full of enthusiasm for retrieving tennis balls and running the cotton rows. I could have brought one of the bird dogs from home but she was a birthday gift, and this was – by all means – lab-country.

Less than a quarter mile from the back door was a cypress–tupelo gum brake that was a cutoff arm of Beaver Dam Slough, which itself was a cutoff of the old river channel. I was drawn to it like a plate of hot biscuits. The north bank was fairly clean and I could look to into the cathedral’s deep center, where long columns of sunlight found their way through the towering bald cypress. At the waterline, the massive conical tees were swollen and surrounded by vertical knees. Along the perimeter, there were jump- butt stumps, six feet high and as many across, with footholds cut so the knee-boot loggers could stand and get a chainsaw on the first sound log, which was over head high. Cypress is rot-resistant and extremely valuable wood. You need a proper chainsaw to get the job done well, recommendations for thetoolboss.com come strongly in these parts. It kept delta people working during the depression when agriculture could not. There were stumps, snags, and floating logs – many hollow and discarded by a one-shot logging crew back in the 1930s. No doubt this swamp was high-graded, as the timber people called it, but paradise for a duck hunter.

I finally got enough nerve to ask the landowner’s permission one morning at the Tunica post office. I must have talked a blue-streak; in the meantime, he was in a hurry. He said yes, with one stipulation: “Keep the poachers out…and, oh yeah, watch out for the cottonmouths.” I would do both. A jackpot like this was rare, it was unearned, and it was November. Like the landowner, now I was suddenly in a hurry, and left the post office on a big business trip to Ace Hardware.

For an Alabama quail hunter, shooting my first mallard duck in the Delta was going to take tactical gear. I bought a box of Federal lead number four shot, a Chick Majors duck call, a water-repellent canvas coat, and a pair of rubber non-insulated hip boots. Next, came a state license and a paper 1977 Mississippi state stamp signed by wildlife director Avery Wood, which is still in my possession. This faded relic, embossed with a painted drake Wood duck, is nothing less than iconic in a stamp collection. After being informed about a required federal duck stamp and scrambling back to the post office, the buying spree was completed. I might add here: preparation is the key to hunting. Discovering a latent talent for preparation, I soon realized something was missing: decoys. The shelves at the hardware store were empty, my new art-form was waning, and in desperation, I turned to prowling.

A few days before the season, I struck gold in the attic of the rental house. They were bagged in a mouse-eaten burlap sack in a forgotten corner and I thought for a moment that I heard fiddles and flutes. There were a dozen historic Victor decoys strung with monofilament line and spark-plug anchors. I had visions of mallards approaching these opening-day beauties like they owed ‘em money.

Night flights of early migrating snow geese were nosily following the river that week, bound for Louisiana, and new ducks were feeding in the flooded soybean fields. I took it as another great omen. On opening day, Kelly the Labrador and I stood in the brush and fall foliage on the edge of the brake and waited centuries for first light. It started with the shrill whistles and yaws of Wood ducks as they jetted head-high through the trees and Gadwalls lazily flew the tops. The sound of the Remington 1100 was deafening in the woods and I never hit a bird. Next Saturday, I would remember to bring the damn decoys.

The decoys were another matter. One week later when I tossed them out in the dark, two promptly sank and another decoy decided to take a long voyage to the middle of the swamp – anchor-free, and at last liberated from permanent exile in the attic. At dawn, I was double-counting the nine surviving floaters when a pair of large ducks angled through the treetops on a perfect slant to the decoys. I never had time to blow the duck call, and the hen was so close that the feathers flew when I fired by instinct. Another lucky snap-shot downed the drake as he flared, dramatically bouncing off a large gum tree and hitting the chocolate water with a splash. Mallards! With astonished looks, the dog and I faced each other. Now what?

The hen was close enough to retrieve but I felt cold water lap the top of my non-insulated rubber boots as I turned back for dry land. The drake mallard was another thirty yards out, the early autumn sun illuminating the iridescent green head, chestnut yoke, and blue wing patches, but he might as well have been on the moon. I pointed at the duck and gave the hunting command: fetch! Her facial expression said: I think not. Never mind the hunting dog covenant, this was not tennis balls, and icy water was not in the contract either. After begging and pleading, my only option was to find the longest tree branch I could muster and head back out for the bird myself, as my duck dog sat lady-like, sipped a mint julep, and watched from the bank. I was returning with a dandy limb when I saw that Kelly had actually gone in and was now hauling the big drake out to the shore. I still don’t know who was the proudest as we sat shivering on the brushy bank together. As each season passed, we would get much better at our new trade.

Physically, the Delta was somewhere behind me now in a rear-view movie, but its heart and soul still had a pull on my senses. Unforgettable was the Tunica Cutoff, Moon Lake, Milliken Bend, Friars Point ,Vicksburg, Clarksdale, Rolling Fork, Greenville, and Natchez. The river-rats, planters, field hands, lawyers, and politicians – along with southern culture, heritage, tenacity, and the end of crippling poverty – were all marching forward to become the New South, whether I was there or not. The truck traffic was getting heavier as we approached our halfway mark. My headlights found the Fort Smith signs when I felt a gentle nudge on my shoulder and Fran’s sleepy voice: Honey, I think this is our exit.

 —

Steve Lyda is a retired State of Alabama forester who now resides in western Nebraska
enjoying hunting, fishing, and horses in the Big Sky country. His work, “Black
Ducks” was published in Waterfowler Magazine and he has recently finished a series
of short stories ranging from turkey hunting to trout fishing.  Kelly the labrador
passed many years ago but every time Steve is in the field he sees her shadow healing
beside him.

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