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Joey’s Swamp

March 4, 2012

Georgia meets Maryland in the Okefenokee Swamp

Elena and I are self-professed Swamp-Trotters — she being a plein air painter and amateur botanist always keenly on the lookout for a fresh scene or a rare specimen; and me as her faithful scout, up front doing the heavy-lifting and steering the canoe or kayak from behind.

Last month we returned to one of our favorite swamps. This time, we took Joey’s boat tour of the Okefenokee in the company of nearly a dozen other tourists. That’s Joey in today’s picture. Joey hails from Georgia, a seventh-generation swamper proudly married into an eighth-generation family.

Elena and I had wanted to gauge for ourselves damage done to the Swamp by its recent 80% burn-over. As we set out, Joey reassured us. “Happens pretty often, and it’s a good thing. If we didn’t get fires, this would be the Okefenokee Forest.” Turns out his Swamp is the second most often lightning-struck place in America, with Tampa, Florida being numero uno.

“You can’t be shy on a job like this.” Joey, you realize pretty quickly, is what the French call “formidable.” Southern and effortlessly funny enough to claim billing on a Blue Collar Comedy Tour, he was also painlessly putting over a steady stream of pertinent, interesting facts, including such seeming esoterica as his up-to-date speculations about why cypresses have knees (stability, or for more oxygen?).

Joey was pretty out-front about hoping for tips. He confessed manfully to having needed to take government money for a week or two, recently, because local tourism is way down. Today’s boatload, while affluent-looking enough, displayed that flatscreen-stunned passivity on public occasions which bodes so ill for participatory democracy in the looming conformist future being prepared for once-free Americans.

I cannot seem to relax in any situation where I am watching performers struggle to connect with their audience. So I took it upon myself, as a professional courtesy, one underpaid performer to another, to play Maryland straight man to Joey’s Georgia, to help warm up our boatload of gawkers. We’d all end up having a better time.

My guy-to-guy instinct assured me Joey could have handled anything humanly conceivable that might have broken out in that little tour boat (“This is not Disneyland,” he mentioned at one point. “Those gators ain’t animatronic. If one tries to climb into the boat…”). So I proceeded to “do” reactions and feed him set-ups, then shut up as he gradually began to draw into the discussion questions and quips from the other folks.

Joey knew what was up, and he could tell I enjoyed it, too, and for the hell of it, he had Elena take a snapshot of us during part of the tour where he landed the boat and stepped out to demonstrate the “trembling earth,” as Native Americans once called this swamp prairie.

He also showed us how to chose and eat a delicious golden-tipped spear known as Never Wet, so called because a fine mesh of tiny fibers keeps away the water (“It can dip under and come up dry as it went down.”) Good crunch, nice mouth-feel, and a little radish heat that makes it tasted like excellent salad fodder. And we got it straight, my huckleberry friend, that a huckleberry is just another way of saying blueberry.

By then in the tour, almost everybody in our party had loosened up enough to tell little stories of their old days and old ways from where they grew up and lived all around the country. We in Joey’s boat, mostly of a generation, had also all grown up in the same place, it turned out seeming like, because no matter where we haled from, here and now in the Swamp, we regained our former human certainty about Nature, our childlike intuition of a welcoming infinitely-enriching plenitude around us.

I like, for example, because starring yourself dramatizing the world through expensive “event” tourism is the admirable cream at the top of a vast array of endless travel possibilities. But what Joey’s tour reminded us about was how, happily, inexpensive human-scale tourism does not crush you. You are not just another brittle eco-conformist, one of the passive, hushed and humbled communicants of a sacred government-controlled “environment” which people are said to somehow always be “threatening.”

Stepping up on the dock after the tour, we men each slipped Joey a few bucks. I gave him a five-dollar handshake and said, “Sometimes it helps to have a straight man, to warm up the house.”

“Tell the folks back home to come on down,” Joey told me to tell you. “We need to see ’em, and there’s a lot here to enjoy.”

Amen. Ask for Joey.

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