Swamp Writer: Dispatches from the Most Remote Area of Alabama
The noted novelist and screenwriter unlocks his Delta journal for the first time in this premiere of a new four-part series.
illustration by Kelan Mercer
The air is still cool with the tailings of spring and the sky is deep blue. The river sparkles and flows deep and healthy in its channel through the marsh. I lie on a raft of lashed telephone pilings connected to a small jon boat while my friends pull me up the river. I wear nothing but some cutoffs and a baseball cap pulled over my eyes. Sometimes I roll over and hold up my hand. Someone drops a beer over the side of the boat, and I pull it from the water as it floats past. I don’t remember many times being more satisfied with who and where I was than at that moment on that raft. I knew I was going to build my swamp camp, make it my weekend retreat, and write about it.
It’s been 15 years since I discovered the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, or “the swamp,” almost 260,000 acres of wetlands located just north of Mobile Bay. Formed by the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers, it is second only to the Mississippi River Delta in size. As big as it is, there is no way to get around this place except by small boat. And once you’re in, there’s nothing fancy about it. I spend most of my time in the lower Delta, a maze of rivers and creeks between stunted trees and mud. A man can hardly step out of his boat without sinking to his knees in muck the consistency of axle grease.
My great-great-grandfather had swamp in his blood. He moved into the Mississippi Delta two years after the Civil War and hacked a farm from one of the most inhospitable pieces of land in the country. Malaria and bears and snakes were such that he had to leave his family in the hills and commute until a suitable settlement was established. Maybe I am afflicted with whatever he had. I’ve never seen the swamp as dirty, wet and unpleasant. To me it is a frontier. It is the only place I know where gloom and beauty can coexist at such extremes.
Bay vs. Delta
I grew up on the coast not 20 miles south of Mobile’s Delta. I lived about halfway down the eastern shore of the Bay and learned the skills conducive to these waters. On the Bay, people build for hurricanes and the wood-eating creatures that live in saltwater. As to fishing, the thought of catching a largemouth bass or a bream or a freshwater catfish never enters the mind. It’s speckled trout and redfish and tarpon and jack crevalle.
In the Delta, the swamp people are prepared to catch all things, depending on the season. The water is brackish, and in the spring and fall, saltwater fish ebb into the lower swamp. The rest of the time, they catch crappie and bass and freshwater catfish and rarer species like the spoonbill.
Before Hurricane Frederic, a native of the Delta and good boat builder lived and worked on the Causeway, the road that crosses the head of the Bay and divides it from the Delta. This man’s last name was Stauter and prized wood boats still carry his name. Lawrence Stauter was also a good businessman. He launched his shallow-draft, flat-bottom skiffs on one side of the Causeway for Delta customers and sent his V-bottom models into the Bay for his customers to the south. On the Eastern Shore, boats face open water and need to be equipped with high sides, stern rod holders and reinforced bottoms. The Delta vessels are rigged with trolling motors and designed light enough to be pulled out of the shallows.
When I was in my mid-twenties I moved across the Bay to Mobile. The closest place to launch my 14-foot Stauter became the Causeway. It took too long to trailer it all the way south to the familiar fishing grounds of my childhood. One day I decided to head north and see the lower Delta for the first time. I called my cousin, Ritchie, to go exploring with me. We stopped at Mac’s Bait and Tackle, another old Causeway business. We picked up a map of the Delta and set out.
Navigating the Delta can be stressful, especially for novices. Most sections are too shallow to run a boat and the water is so murky that you don’t know you’re in trouble until the motor starts chewing black oatmeal and drags you to a stop. After auguring out of that situation, you learn to go slow and stick to the middle of the rivers. You don’t know exactly what river you might be on without studying the map carefully. Some creeks are as big as rivers and some rivers as small as creeks.
The map is only accurate on a perfect tide. Once we were deep into the swamp we began passing camps. The thought of someone getting all that lumber up there and actually building something livable in such a remote location fascinated me. Who were these people? How had I never known about this place?
“I’ve got to get one of those camps,” I told Ritchie.
“How do they build them?”
“I don’t know, but I could take that little cabin, jack it up, and fix it. Wouldn’t it be the coolest thing ever?”
Ritchie nodded, but I knew he wasn’t feeling what I felt. Not many people do. I was talking about a 12-by-8 box cabin we were passing. The porch had fallen into the mud and the plywood sides were curling off. The landing was nothing but stripped, spindly, creosote fence posts. It must have been years since anyone had been there.
The next day I used a tax map to find the owner of the property and the abandoned shack. He was eager to write me a 20-year lease on the campsite. Within a month I was headed upriver on a raft of lashed telephone pilings, going to build my camp.
Now, 15 years later, I look back over my writings, and I can’t imagine a place that could have offered richer material. During the construction and enjoyment of my camp, I met a cast of unforgettable characters. I’ve been shot at, told to my face I was going to be killed, ejected from speeding boats, and presented with a homemade wine that left me curled up and poisoned. I’ve learned so much swamp lore that I’m convinced I could thrive off the grid. But, above all, I’ve made lifelong friends and memories. In the months to come I’m letting loose of my journal for the first time and giving you the real story behind life in the swamps of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Stand by.