I love swamps.
When I was much younger, I lived with my sister in a small cabin outside of Nacogdoches, in deep East Texas. We were surrounded by tall pine trees and the ground was always soft and squishy. It was dark back there, and a little creepy. The woods were filled with poisonous snakes, biting insects and stinging vines that grabbed your socks and jeans whenever you brushed too close.
The ponds and slow-moving bayous were filled with logs that could, if you looked closely, actually be alligators. It’s not really a place for a picnic . . . unless, that is, you want to be the lunch.
But look closer, the swampy woods of east Texas are also beautiful. The tall cypress trees, with their knobby knees that pop up through the water and their long mossy beards, feel like grandparents. And in a way, they are, as they provide nesting places for thousands of birds, frogs, and small mammals.
There are also, in those woods, many ghosts, the dozens of species that used to live there but have disappeared, most particularly the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, or IBWO as it’s known in birding circles. A hundred years ago, this beautiful and statuesque bird, with its three-foot wingspan, filled the forests of the eastern United States. There was no mistaking its cry—kint, kint, kint KAPOW! When people spotted it, they often shouted in amazement, “Good Lord, what a bird!” And so it became known as the Good Lord Bird.
Once in a while, someone claims to have seen one, and even though it seems highly improbable and most likely impossible that one still exists, I think we see their ghosts. We see them because there is an unanswered question out there: “How could we let that beautiful bird go?” Yes, I want to know, how could we?
That question is so painful to consider, that it nestles right in the deepest part of our hearts. How could we? The yearning is so big, I think, that it’s easy to imagine that we’ve seen one. The very act of imagining such an amazing bird, somehow lets us off the hook a bit, let’s us delay that awful question for at least a little while.
It’s why I set some of my stories in the swamps, because those too are at risk of becoming ghosts. A swamp is a hard place to love. They’re not like a majestic, breath-taking mountain, or a rolling hill, or a bounteous ocean side. They’re murky and dark and dangerous. But they are safe havens to critters we may not even know about, they are the protectors of hundreds, maybe thousands of species, and if the IBWO has even a remote shot of returning to us, then it will need these murky, dark and dangerous homes to raise its babies.
I want my books to offer up that hope, even if it’s a tiny bit magical, that anything is possible, that miracles occur. I want that heartbreaking question, How could we? to become more than a question. I want it to become a clarion call to take action, not only in our imaginations, but in our activities too, because inside of that question is an urgent insistence that we become better than we already are.
I want the birds to look at each one of us, and say, “Good Lord, what a human being!”
Kathi Appelt is the author of many acclaimed children’s novels and picture books. She received a Newbery Honor for The Underneath, which was also a National Book Award finalist. And The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp was a National Book Award Finalist too. Both are set in the swamps. Visit www.kathiappelt.com to learn more about her writing (and love of cats).