Southeast Missouri State University Press

Coming Back

Kelby Ouchley

Pendulum‑like, his right arm swept downward in an arch inches behind the spinning steel disc and back up to the hopper. Each cycle took less than two seconds and each changed the world perhaps for generations. The biologist was riding a tractor-drawn implement planting hardwood seedlings in a vast agricultural field in the middle of a swamp. The area had recently been acquired as a federal wildlife refuge and mitigating past human arrogance was a priority. As the coulter sliced open the earth, the momentum of the tractor literally pulled the seedling from his hand as it was placed in the incision. Trailing packing wheels sealed the wound.

The earth received the seedlings hungrily; they were not the most recent genetic mutants of a grass from the Middle East, a mallow from Africa found in blue jeans, or an oily bean from Asia. They were manifestations of nursery-grown wild seeds. Progeny of sporadic glaciers, thousands of floods and intermittent fires, they had evolved with specific pollinators, microrhizoans, woodpeckers, and boring beetles. They had adapted to survive a host of herbivores and even dendro‑chemical attacks by their neighbors. They could not, however, withstand the force of a D‑8 bulldozer blade.

The planter was loaded with species native to the swamp. As the field changed slightly in elevation or soil type, the biologist reached for different trees. Cypress and tupelo in the lowest areas, overcup oaks six inches up the “hill,” then willow oaks and green ash. Diversity—always seeking life-sustaining, system-supporting diversity—sweetgums, pecans, mayhaws, persimmons.

In addition to seedlings, the hoppers were filled with invisible life to come. Their seed spilled into the furrow to sprout parula warblers gleaning insects from Spanish moss in the top of an oak tree. It grew into black bear cubs born in a hollow cypress and largemouth bass spawned on a log during a spring overflow. Fireflies and fungi, crawfish and catfish were planted alongside gobbling wild turkeys and cottonmouths with attitudes.

Trucks delivered bags of new seedlings to the turn‑rows. Fresh crews relieved men during lunch breaks so the tractors could keep running hour after hour and acre after acre. The window of opportunity was small. A rainy spell on hydric soils would end the season’s work. The cumulative impact was important and more than biotic. The forest would stabilize and enrich the tons of topsoil that currently washed into the adjacent river. Downstream towns would benefit from the sponge effect of a natural swamp during the ever more frequent “hundred year floods.” Filters of a functioning system would trap and break down pollutants.

It is hard to imagine that men once made a cursory examination of this intact swamp and made a boardroom decision to use investors’ money to remove the forest for the sake of profitable agriculture. Apparently rational men didn’t, as profits were scarce as screech owl nests in a rice field. Within a few weeks though, spring rains would erase the chevron-shaped tracks of the tree-planting rig and tractors will till this swamp no more.


© Kelby Ouchley