National Geographic : 1974 Oct
100,000-acre national park or nature preserve. As a fighter for her cause, Geraldine is formidable, but when I went on a field trip with her, she seemed more like a lady Johnny Appleseed. She carried a bundle of ladies' tresses orchids from an endangered area to transplant in the woodland we were visiting, a beautiful tract along Village Creek. We walked among huge scaly-barked pines, hundred-foot-tall magnolias, gray-barked beeches you couldn't reach your arms around. Geraldine pointed out lady ferns and Christ mas ferns, their fiddleheads just now unfold ing in early spring, tiny orchids not yet in bloom, vines of sweet-smelling yellow jas mine. She found a marshy spot, got down on her knees, and planted the ladies' tresses. '|T'S THE BOTANICAL DIVERSITY that i makes the Thicket so special," she said. In a soft east Texas drawl, pleasant on the ear, she explained that the Big Thicket was an ecotone-a biological crossroad, where a wide variety of plant communities meet and intermingle: plants found in the Appala chians and plants found in the tropics, even plants characteristic of the deserts. Geraldine counts seven distinct types of plant associations in the Thicket, with thou sands of species. There are 40 species of orchids, 26 of ferns, and four of North Ameri ca's six genera of carnivorous plants. On that first trip and others Geraldine showed me cactus and yucca, sphagnum moss and sticky-leaved sundew, huge cypress and great oaks with resurrection fern growing like pale-green fur along the branches. She pointed out graceful but voracious pitcher plants (preceding page). A lizard had fallen into one, she said, and "the plant's enzymes had devoured him down to the skeleton." Once along Village Creek she stopped and smelled the jasmine-scented air. "I spent my childhood in virgin woods," she said. "Our house was in a beech-magnolia forest, and nearby was virgin longleaf pine, and we'd walk in there in the afternoon-it was cool, there among the big trees and the wild flow ers. I can just close my eyes and smell the air, and I'm back home again." She looked around at the forest and said, "We ought not to lose these things." It was easy enough for me to share Geral dine's feeling for the Thicket's remaining wild lands. Three years earlier I had visited the Thicket with ornithologist John Dennis to search for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker. The spectacular ivorybill is one of the rar est creatures on earth. It has been considered extinct off and on since the 1920's, and orni thologists argue with spirit over whether any at all are still alive. John had seen an ivorybill in the Thicket in 1966, but on our trip in 1971 we found no firm evidence that the bird still existed there. But even if the ivorybill is gone, the forest is still alive. Red-tailed hawks patrol the up lands and red-shoulders course the swamps, and wood ducks squeal from the dark sloughs. There are signs of otter, and the beaver are coming back, and once on a rainy afternoon in the woods, sitting by a campfire eating squirrel stew with Jude Hart, we heard the long melancholy howl of a wolf. Not the tim ber wolf-it's doubtful that they were ever here. It was just one of the local wolves, a cross, probably, between the Texas red wolf and a coyote, but nevertheless one of the best of all sounds to hear. A BATTLE over how much of the Big Thicket should be preserved in its natu ral state has raged for years. A bloc of active and vocal conservation groups has fought against-primarily-a handful of timber companies that own most of the land. The Kirby Lumber Corporation, a subsidiary of Santa Fe Industries, and Temple Indus tries and Eastex, both subsidiaries of Time Inc., control more than a million and a half acres between them. Traditionally these com panies have resisted efforts to remove large blocks of land from timber production. It has been a classic confrontation between those who want to preserve wild land and those who want to use it commercially. To Geraldine Watson and other naturalists, the vast pine plantations with young trees sprouted up in neat rows are ecological abominations; to timber-company foresters Old friends and dear embrace at a church reunion near the Little Rock settlement. Kin, friendship, and faith bind the people, who provide as they can and trust in the Lord. Earliest Thicketeers were fugitive slaves and outlaws. Had Sam Houston lost to Santa Anna in the Texas War of Independence, one story goes, he planned to retreat into the Thicket.