Preserving the Pascagoula by Donald G. Schueler

Preserving the Pascagoula by Donald G. Schueler – PopMatters Book Review

by Donald G. Schueler
University Press of Mississippi
May 2002, 192 pages, $18.00 (US)

by Lucian Niemeyer (photography) and George W. Folkerts (text)
University Press of Mississippi
May 2002, 166 pages, $45.00 (US)

by Wesley Burnett

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Swamps As They Ought To Be

“As crude a weapoon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life.”
— Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

William Faulkner could write about nearly anything and do it well, but he wrote about hunting with peculiar affection. He captured the thrill of the hunt in the rawness of nature as few other writers have been able to do. But a contemporary student of American literature taking a casual drive across Mississippi is likely to conclude that Faulkner wrote fantasy, not fiction. Raw nature in Mississippi, phooey! Well, it’s still there but one has to search for it and that is a pretty good indication of how fast the South is changing.

Starting about 1973 a number of people, organizations and events came together in Mississippi to pull off, in 1979, a conservation miracle, and not a minor one either. They brought together the resources to create the Pascagoula Heritage Project and to bring the Pascagoula swamp in southeastern Mississippi under public management. In 1980, Donald Schueler commemorated this event in the book Preserving the Pascagoula which the University Press of Mississippi (UPM) has seen fit to reissue with several new additions. Those are a new preface, which is ho-hum, and a compact disk of E. O. Wilson’s keynote address, ‘Celebrating the Pascagoula’, which is anything but ho-hum.

E. O. Wilson has called the preservation of the Pascagoula a ‘grassroots epic’. In a sense, it is, since the people of Mississippi finally had to acquire much of the Pascagoula swamp by passing a bond issue. One might conclude that if little ol’ Mississippi, backward, impoverished and redneck up to its ears, could do this, any place could do it. Schueler is quick to point-out that this ain’t necessarily so. Mississippi in the 1970s may have been all those trite things we like to think Mississippi to be, but it had some things to its credit most of the rest of us didn’t have. It still had a lot of open space. Its village and town folks were within a generation of their strongly rural roots. During the Depression, nature had fed them and they hadn’t forgotten the generosity. They had a tradition of hunting and fishing that Faulkner wrote about so beautifully. They were on the verge of an economic explosion, and they knew it. The New South with its shopping malls and highway strip developments was right around the corner and many Mississipians, in love with Mississippi ‘as-it-is’ were skeptical. So there was plenty of raw material for a grassroots movement.

Grassroots movements require leadership, however, and Mississippi was blessed with leadership just at this point. A governor, Bill Walker, who was something of a maverick, and honest and innovative. A Fish and Game Commissioner, Avery Wood, Walker’s political appointee who admitted to knowing nothing about wildlife management except that he liked to hunt, hunting requires critters, and critters require habitat. And oh yes, Wood also had a blind ambition to do things differently and leave his mark on the state. And having a guy like Graham Wisner, the youngest son of a distinguished Washington, DC, family whose roots ran deep in Mississippi, didn’t hurt either. Wisner, something of a hippie, was disenchanted with his family’s power and privilege. Alienated. But not so alienated he would pass up lunch with a former senior CIA official who was devoting his retirement to the Nature Conservancy, not so alienated he wouldn’t make the well-timed telephone call when it was needed.

If it’s a drama you want with the environmental heroes allied against the development bad guy in black hats, this isn’t it. There is the inevitable tension between ‘conservation’ and ‘development’ but there are few bad guys and none who are truly awful. The actors are playing a reasonable, if tense, game by rules they all seem to understand and abide by. But there are heroes, none greater than The Nature Conservancy, an environmental organization that specializes in real estate in its various forms from fee simple to innovative, original forms of easements and land transfers. Hey, I’ve worked with these folks in Montana and South Carolina. They can be arrogant. They can be officious. They can be, but seldom are, absolutely obnoxious. They also know what they are doing and do it very well. They deserve all the praise we can give them, and Schueler isn’t stinting in that regard.

But, you can’t expect The Nature Conservancy to be too reassuring. You can’t expect them, once they’ve saved the Pascagoula, to show up in your neighborhood and save the creek behind your house from the heinous developers. Forget it. It won’t happen. In fact, their message is that we can save little of what should be saved so we’d better expend our limited resources on what is top draw. They make us face disturbing questions like, ‘Ok, which is more important, the snowy owl or the blackfooted ferret’? Once we’ve reasonably answered that question, then they are very good at helping us find reasonable solutions.

So, why did UPM elect to issue a new edition of this book at this time? The answer is hinted at in unsigned preface to the new edition. Conserving land is like fatherhood, it is always presumptuous. On the one hand, ‘development’, with its propensity for bulldozers, concrete and asphalt, is permanent. Once the developer is done with a place, it ain’t never gon’a raise corn again, much less old growth forest or prairie. On the other hand, the best intended conservation implies a limited time frame. Conservation of a piece of land is a decision we can always revisit. Development is forever, conservation is for however long we want it to be. For reasons not made clear in the new edition, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks feels it’s high time to rejuvenate the coalition that preserved the Pascagoula in the first place. It’s time to be born again. Well, thank you, UPM, for drawing this project to our attention and the best of luck to ya’ll. If we can help, let us know.

One of my minor objections to this book is that it tells a thrilling story about the conservation of the Pascagoula swamp but very little about why it should be conserved. Possibly it is obvious. We are told the place is pretty pristine and chucked full of rare, unique and distinguished things. I’m sure it is, but Schueler makes no real systematic effort to explain the Pascagoula to the reader. Possibly, Wisner is made to offer the best explanation for its conservation. Admitting that he couldn’t tell a gum tree from a cypress, a possum from a cougar, he eventually acknowledges that in the Pascagoula he was ‘as free of himself as he was ever likely to be’. Edward Abbey couldn’t have said it better. But other than a brilliant cover photo, we are offered no visual and little literary confirmation that the Pascagoula is significant. The reader who has not experienced the Pascagoula must accept the opinions of others without much to go on.

If Schueler tells a story that leaves us visually deprived, that is certainly not the case with Okefenokee, a collection of absolutely fabulous photographs. This is essentially a coffee table book brought to us at a reasonable price through cheap Chinese labor. It is a truly magnificent collection. Can one have any doubt about how very special this landscapes is after viewing only a handful of Niemeyer’s stunning photographs? Hardly. They are made all the more impressive when one realizes Niemeyer did this photo study without filters or special effects, with standard grade commercial film, and with fairly standard cameras.

Have you ever read the text of a coffee table book? I haven’t. So, make an exception in this case. Folkerts, a professor at Auburn who has devoted much of his academic life to the Okefenokee, has prepared a highly readable text that covers a lot of science without a burdensome specialized vocabulary. His is a fascinating story ranging from the basic geology of the swamp, through its plants and animals to its social and cultural history. Once you’ve gone through that text with the photographs you can claim an expert’s knowledge of the Okefenokee and a pretty good grasp of wetlands generally.

Between these two books and the recently published Saving Louisiana? by Bill Streever, the UPM is providing a good overview of the South’s endangered wetlands, lands endangered by our propensity to make the South over again into a parking lot. UPM seems hell bent on reminding us of what we stand to lose with our present propensity to pursue development over the value of life-as-it-is. The Pascagoula was saved because many folks in Mississippi were still very close to a nature that had sustained them in hard times. Not so the present generation. Our present crop of undergraduate students seem convinced that nature is nothing more than that unpleasant experience between the air-conditioned dorm and the air-conditioned car. As our ‘developed’ world takes us further from nature, as we become more alienated from it, we must be reminded constantly that there is something out there worth experiencing and worth saving so we might experience it. UPM is to be thanked for its contribution to that effort. Keep up the good work, folks.