In Alabama, A Wilderness So Rare

In fourth grade at Jones Valley Elementary we were given a textbook titled Know Alabama that presented a kind of drive-by view of our state's history. I am sure that the book would be considered so politically incorrect now that it would fall swift victim to Internet crowdshaming and have a swifter trip to the burnpile, but in those benighted days of pledging allegiance and teachers' winking at playground fistfights, Know Alabama served our gnat-like attention spans pretty well.

Those were gloomy days for a ten-year-old, imprisoned in that classroom with a whole world of adventure just beyond the windows. But we did learn a few bits of history that provided the imaginative fodder for long afternoons of mud clod fights and fort raids and hand-to-hand battles. The best history for such action was the August 30th, 1813, Red Stick attack on Fort Mims in Baldwin County, on the exotic-sounding Tensaw River. It was a grim and bloody battle in a grim and bloody war--the Red Stick band of Creeks led by William Weatherford overwhelmed Fort Mims and killed as many as 250 whites, a vengeance-strike for an attack by white militias on the Red Sticks the month before. The Fort Mims Massacre, as it came to be called, was the prelude to the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, where the forces of Andrew Jackson militarily destroyed the Creek Nation.

All my life I've wanted to visit Fort Mims, but never have. It's not like I don't know where it is (upriver from Mobile Bay only 30 miles or so, and accessible by county road). Magazine stories of fishing the Tensaw River, Majors Creek, and the mighty Mobile-Tensaw swamps come up from time to time and I read them all. In my imagination the Tensaw country is jungled and mysterious, booming with gators, alive with bass and crappie and big gar and the wandering creatures of the saltwater. I dream of hidden lakes and oxbows haunted by the ghosts of Creek warriors and murdered settlers.

Turns out, I was right on the money.

Two Alabamians--Ben Raines, former enviro-reporter extraordinaire for the Mobile Register; and Emmy-award-winning filmmaker Lynn Rabren--have made a movie about the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, and the place is everything I thought it was, and more. The film is called America's Amazon, and it should be on the must-see list of every outdoorsman and woman in our country.

America's Amazon will appeal most to the hunter and fisherman who owns the curiosity of the close observer, the person for whom the experience of being outside and immersed in the woods and waters is as important as taking a limit.

The film is a primer on how the world works, and just how long the world has been working. The unmatched richness of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta depends first on the almost-unbelievable level of diversity in the huge watershed that creates and charges it. We visit the headwaters springs and rivers in places like Little River Canyon and the Cahaba, fast, rocky mountain waters, replete with their own unique species of fish and amphibians. Those headwaters in turn owe their wealth to a fact of geography and ancient climate: Alabama lies south of where, 21,000 years ago, the Last Glacial Maximum basically smothered most North American life forms under a thick cloak of ice. In Alabama, life went on, adapting, diversifying, thriving.

The result is that the state is a kind of living Noah's Ark. Every kind of plant known in the eastern U.S. is found here. Nine species of the gaudy pitcher plants, one of the world's few species of carnivorous plants, live in south Alabama. The Red Hills salamander lives in a narrow band of ravine-laced country between the Conecuh and Alabama Rivers- and nowhere else on the planet. There are more species of turtles in the Tensaw swamps than any other single place on earth. There are 450 species of fish in the state- the most of any place in North America. And so on. The Ark is thundering with life.

Such superlatives could become numbing. But narrator Ben Raines is a hardcore fisherman, and this is his home water. He lets the place carry the story, along with a wide range of Alabama tale-tellers, from gator hunters to the fishing explorer Pat Ogburn, who is determined to make his way into the most hidden reaches of the swamp, to commercial fisherman and restaurant owner Robert Dean of the Dixie Landing Café, who supplies his kitchen with fresh catfish by running his own string of fish boxes on the Tensaw. You'll meet Sylvester Hooks, who is repaying a debt to the Delta--he's eaten its fish, gigged its bullfrogs and gators, run trotlines, all his life--by taking as many young people out fishing as he can. The film is dedicated to Alabama's native son and one of the world's most respected scientists, E.O. Wilson, who is still happily roaming the Red Hills and the Delta swamps at age 85. Wilson adds his own commentary about the importance of protecting the Delta while we still can.

Because, as the film makes clear about halfway through, we are living in a time of choices. It is true that everything changes, that the ice came and went, that 20,000 years ago the dense cypress forests of the Tensaw Delta grew in what is now the open Gulf of Mexico, or that the waves of the same Gulf once crashed onto beaches that were 90 miles north of what is now the city of Mobile. There were moundbuilder people living in these swamps only 1000 years ago, and the Creek Nation after that. But right now, we are closing in on the Mobile –Tensaw Delta, these last wild places still vibrating with the life accumulated over eons of time.

Alabama, for all its wealth of nature, may have one of the worst track records of any state in the US for environmental protection and conservation. The waters that connect the Delta and the rich fisheries and shellfisheries of Mobile Bay and the Gulf with the highlands are increasingly muddy and polluted. Industry is booming in south Alabama, and population is rising. If we are to pass on the legacy of this American Amazon, we have choices to make about how we live and conduct our business. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta country is the ultimate example of the old conservationist adage that "we all live downstream." The film makes that abundantly clear, and it makes it even more clear exactly what is at stake. It is a beautiful effort.

You can preview the film and buy a copy of it here, or stream it straight from Alabama Public Television here.