August 9, 2014. There is a light, steady rain falling in the swamp this Saturday morning. On the drive to the visitor’s center I stop to move two box turtles crossing the asphalt road. The rain shows an entirely different side to the swamp, providing a subdued, evocative atmosphere that invites contemplation and reflection. I like the feeling and am tempted to sit on a boardwalk bench and watch the rain come down, but the need to walk in it wins out.
A few water tupelo leaves have turned yellow and fallen to the ground, and here and there are green water tupelo fruits, some of which have been chewed on by squirrels. As I prepare to step off the low boardwalk into the muck swamp, I look down and see an eighteen-inch copperhead about where I was going to put my boot. His attractive tans and browns make him almost invisible in leaf litter, but this camouflage pattern doesn’t work as well against the dark earth of the muck swamp, and he stands out more than usual. He doesn’t mind my presence and poses nicely for a few photos.
The muck swamp is just dry enough to allow my 175-pound frame to walk on it without bogging down, but I can easily push my persimmon walking stick a good six to eight inches down through the top layer. The ground consists of nothing but mud and scattered pools of shallow water. This particular area west of the low boardwalk is a pure stand of virgin water tupelo hundreds of years old. I see no signs of cut cypress stumps and surmise that monotypic stands of tupelo did occur in the swamp under natural conditions.
The water tupelos have impressive buttresses, running sixteen to eighteen feet in circumference, with a few exceeding twenty feet. Almost every one has a broken or missing major canopy limb, usually at the first fork. The result is some very impressive large cavities providing homes for everything from bats to barred owls. In the Mississippi Delta large tupelo cavities are a favorite aerial retreat for denning black bears.
Farther back in the swamp I see a great egret get up from one of the shallow pools and fly off. Against the somber background of muted greens, grays, and browns, the egret is a blinding beacon of pure white.
I turn and head south and the topography gradually changes. I’m leaving behind the pure tupelo stand and now enter a more diverse forest of bald cypress mixed with red maple, overcup oak, laurel oak, and tupelo. The ground is firmer and the elevation perhaps six-to-eight inches higher. The rain has now started falling much harder, and I hear a rumble or two of thunder off in the distance. I hope it stays there. My old faithful rain parka is still waterproof, for the most part, but everything from the waist down is wet.
As I continue south, I move onto even firmer ground, one that is supporting a low growth of switch cane. In a small clearing in the cane I see two box turtles together, both of which prove to be males. One is noticeably larger than the other, with a flare to the edge of the carapace while the smaller male has no flare but a higher-domed carapace. The rain makes their wet, colorful shells stand out nicely. I assume the turtles may be in some sort of dispute, perhaps over a female who happens to be out of the picture right now.
The ground is high enough to support small openings of lime-green sedge meadows, lush and thick from the rain. The overcast and damp really make the meadows pop with such brilliant green that it would be difficult to improve with digital enhancements.
I am now on the northern edge of Weston Gut that branches off from Cedar Creek and runs eastward into Weston Lake. There are some large sweetgums and other hardwoods on the edge of the gut, and even one lone forty-inch-diameter pine. Like most swamp loblollies, this one is growing on a mound, but I’m not sure whether the mound was there first or if perhaps over the years the growing root system just under the surface created the mound. There are other bare, treeless mounds nearby, created by the root balls of fallen giants many years ago. Eventually the fallen tree disintegrates to nothing but recycled earth, leaving only the dirt mound and a pit or depression on one side to indicate a tree was ever here. These mounds were called “harricanes” by the old timey woodsmen because the fallen trees were often associated with hurricanes that periodically swept through these bottomlands.
One large mound measures about four feet high, four feet across, and eight feet long. Lady ferns are growing on top along with several vines – trumpet creeper, cross vine, and the ubiquitous poison ivy – getting a head start on the competition. Perhaps one day a loblolly pine seedling will sprout here. Like nurse logs, the “harricanes” offer a height advantage for young plants that cannot withstand much flooding.
There are several openings or canopy gaps along this ridge, created by fallen trees. One opening is so recent that the leaves from the snapped-off sweetgum that created it are still green. The star-shaped leaves are giving off that pungent, distinct odor associated with fresh dead leaves. I wonder if it attracts beetles and other bugs that will soon be attacking and eventually recycling this tree?
Canopy openings are the main agents of forest regeneration in the swamp, giving the seedlings an extra boost of sunlight to get started. Vines also like the abundant sunlight, and the resultant thicket within a few years of saplings, vines, and brush adds extra diversity, for both plants and animals, to the forest. But the openings also provide an avenue for exotic, non-native vegetation to get started, confirmed at one opening where I see Japanese climbing fern, Lygodium japonicum. I have seen some openings at Bates Fork, in the eastern section of the park, that have been completely overrun with this aggressive fern.
About noon the rain finally quits, and a few cicadas start calling with tentative love announcements in the warming, humid air.
I get back to the visitor’s center at mid-afternoon. The sky is still overcast, but there is a hint of sun trying to peek through. Just before I get to the parking lot, I see a squirrel near the outdoor picnic tables with a large, white object in its mouth. I look through binoculars as the squirrel leaves the ground and climbs about twenty-five feet up a small water oak. The white object is a mushroom. The squirrel stops to eat the mushroom from the other side of the tree, but I can make out just enough to see it holding the mushroom upside down and chewing on the gills. It continues moving up the tree into the foliage, and the next time I see it, the mushroom has been devoured except for small bits dropped along the way. Lots of critters enjoy dining on mushrooms – deer, bear, and pigs to name a few. Do animals recognize the deadly poisonous ones, perhaps due to a distinctive odor, and avoid them? Or maybe their digestive systems can neutralize toxic mushrooms? At any rate, I envy their ability to eat mushrooms without the fear of getting ill.