I love my character Mr. Dewberry, an energetic young teacher. For me, he represents a teacher somewhat ahead of his time in 1960. Unlike so many of the teachers Spud and Sissie encounter in Slippery Branch Elementary School, the older ones who insist on prescriptive rote learning and strict discipline, Mr. Dewberry is excited about teaching. He creates a friendly learning environment where his students can experience the joy of learning. In a kind way, together with an older mentor, Miss Raven, he refuses to allow students to ridicule other students during their informative speech presentations. He senses how nervous his students are, and he tries to make them feel at ease about public speaking. He knows Sissie loves and respects reptiles and amphibians. In On the Other Side, in the chapter “Crossing Over,” Mr. Dewberry gives Sissie an assignment he thinks she’ll like:
“… Mr. Dewberry asked us to write a two page report about something we found interesting in science. I wasn’t sure where to begin. Everything in science was interesting to me. He gave me a good suggestion.
‘You know, a lot of folks think they have to travel all over the world to find fascinating things. But sometimes the most amazing things are not that far away. Since you love reptiles and amphibians so much, why don’t you write about this topic?’
He handed me a slip of paper with two words scribbled on it: Okefenokee Swamp. The more I read about the swamp, the more I loved it. The Okefenokee Swamp was the best of two worlds... snakes and spirits..."
When I wrote Mr. Dewberry’s assignment for Sissie, I suddenly realized: Now I need to do my part and visit the Okefenokee Swamp to do research for my next book, Chinaberry Summer: Down by the Water. I’ve often read about the swamp, and I’ve always been fascinated by the translation of Okefenokee's Native American name: “Land of the Trembling Earth.”
How many times have we driven through Waycross, Georgia, on our way to a summer vacation at Jekyll Island and Saint Simons Island? I’ve seen the roadside Okefenokee signs dozens of times over the years. But this year, my visit might finally happen. And it did!
Alligators! Alligators! Biting yellow flies that caused small spots of blood on my ankles because the flies’ saliva has an anticoagulant in it. Cottonmouths and coral snakes, though we didn’t see any snakes in the wild that day. It was too hot, so they were cooling off, hidden away under bushes and tall plants. We did see a mighty big, healthy timber rattler (canebrake) who was sharing a large glass cage with a sleepy diamondback rattlesnake in the nature area. Not to mention a huge black bear having a cool soak in what looked like a metal bathtub. Upwards of 900 black bears live in the swamp.
Sissie’s dream came true. I held a grey rat snake for the first time. Sissie’s favorite snake. We saw a sassy baby mud turtle in the nature presentation, but we weren’t allowed to hold it because it bites. I did get to hold a colorful male box turtle and learned how to tell the difference between the male and the female. The colors and the shapes of their carapace. The male is more colorful. The female’s carapace (shell) has a higher hump so she can store her eggs there before she finds a place to lay them.
And then there was the swamp water itself. Despite appearing to be black, the water is crystal clear. Clouds and trees create reflections on the surface of the water. It’s as if you’re looking down to see the blue sky above. The peat moss underneath gives the water its black appearance. Our boat guide told us the water is safe to drink and tastes slightly sweet from the cypress trees that grow in the water. He invited us to reach down and bring up a sample sip. No way was I going to put my hand in the water and drink a sip.
He also told us, “If you should fall out of the boat, don’t panic. Just stand up. The water is only three to five feet deep. Of course, something will have already eaten you by then.” At times it was difficult to concentrate on his presentation because of the yellow flies nibbling on my ankles. Oddly, their bites didn’t hurt. I just saw the blood trail they left behind. The guide added, “I’ve been donating to them all morning.” At least I was wearing long jeans, long sleeves, and a hat. Some people showed up (in a swamp) wearing shorts and T-shirts.
And there were turtles. Three big turtles were swimming together in a nature area, among others. In my photos, the turtles are hidden under the reflections of fluffy white skies on the water’s surface. I recognized their air bubbles in the middle of the cloud reflections.
We were duly warned. Sometimes when alligators are asleep, they appear lifeless, almost like fake props. Signs stated, “The Okefenokee Swamp Park has no fake alligator props in the outdoor areas.” Visitors must stay on the wooden walkways and must not approach a sleeping alligator. And no pets are allowed. I couldn’t help but shake my head. Someone actually had to warn visitors about fake gators and pets on leashes? Other signs said, "Do not spray insect repellent on you inside the gift shop."
As we left the nature park that day, I came away with a renewed appreciation for the wild, untamed beauty of the Okefenokee, 700 square miles of a major ecosystem that’s considered one of the seven wonders of Georgia. And I came away with ideas for a chapter, “Land of the Trembling Earth and Gemma.”
My precious husband Hugh has accompanied me to so many snake presentations and research forays, something I’m sure he didn’t sign onto when he married me forty-seven years ago. He tagged along this time for my visit to the swamp, but he cautioned me, “This is the only time I’m doing this.” We’ll see.