The Natural Heritage of the Delta
In his classic Go Down Moses, William Faulkner described the Delta: “In the beginning, it was virgin … the alluvial swamps threaded by black, almost motionless bayous and impenetrable with cane and buckvine and cypress and ash and oak and gum.... This land, this South ... with woods for game and streams for fish and deep rich soil for seed and lush springs to sprout it and long summers to mature it and serene falls to harvest it and short mild winters for men and animals....” This was the Delta to which John James Audubon came to hunt panthers. It was the Delta that supported enormous flocks of Carolina parakeets that fed on the seeds of the native bamboo called cane. It was the Delta in which legendary hunter Holt Collier claimed to have personally killed more than 3,000 bears. It was a Delta of swamp forest, the last frontier in America.
That Delta is almost entirely gone now, the forests having been lumbered, the swamps drained, and the canebrakes converted to agricultural fields and catfish ponds. At the same time, however, the Delta has retained much of its natural heritage, if in a different form from the wilderness that it was at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese over-winter in the Delta. White pelicans, eagles, and wood storks are sometime visitors. Hummingbirds migrate in large numbers along the river. Millions more song birds pass through the Delta on their way south in the winter and again on their way north in the spring, some stopping to nest along this great flyway. Deer are numerous and bear are sometimes seen. Quail have returned to many places, and wild hogs are regularly hunted. Private hunt clubs line the Mississippi and vast refuges like Dahomey, Panther Swamp, and Theodore Roosevelt together with the Delta National Forest preserve natural resources and promote public access. For-profit hunting outfitters have recently become more numerous and easements and wetlands protection are returning some of the Delta to more natural conditions. Fish still abound in the Mississippi and its tributaries.
The possibility that Ivory Billed Woodpeckers might not be extinct after all recently drew thousands of bird watchers to the Arkansas Delta and stimulated interest in nature tourism throughout the region. These great birds were once seen throughout the Mississippi Delta and some of the last sightings were in Bolivar County in what is now the Dahomey Wildlife Refuge. Whether Ivory Bills exist today or not, they and the panthers, the huge cypresses and tupelo gums, together with the love of nature and the outdoors, all are part of the Delta’s natural heritage.
For more information about the Delta’s natural heritage contact the DSU Delta Center for Culture and Learning at 662-846-4311.
(c) Luther Brown 2012