Straight to the bottom

Have you ever accidentally stumbled upon some outdoor space that required you to pause, literally think about breathing, and marvel at the sight before you? We had that happen to us in a little corner of Arkansas while visting the bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem. More on that later.

But first, Tyler and I took the first stab at exploring this ecosystem while Jacqueline took a week away from the project to close out her other job. He and I started out in Jean Lafitte National Park just outside New Orleans and then we moved on to BlueBonnett Nature Center in Baton Rouge. These tiny parks pack a powerful sensory punch and were loaded with all things bottomland.

What are all things bottomland? Well, first, you have a forest that is regularly flooded at some point throughout the year. Bottomland hardwood forests are typically found very close to river bottoms. In our case, we are following the Mississippi River northward, so we’ve been around what were once prime locations to see these forests. However, over the last two centuries, over 90% of these forests have been drained and converted to agricultural land or logged for timber, leaving quality examples very tough to find.

Because of these losses, the species that rely on these forests have suffered as well. Our focal species, the Prothonotary Warbler, which is a bottomland forest specialist, has lost 1% of their global populations per year for the last 40+ years. They aren’t doing well, but thanks to conservation efforts occurring within these and other protected natural areas, in the right location, they are quite numerous and are easy to spot, as their little gold bodies flit about the Cypress, Tupelo, and Oak trees.

Other species that extensively use these forests are Swainson’s Warblers, Barred Owls, herons, and woodpeckers, the most famous of which, the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, went extinct during the 1930/1940s because of habitat loss. We were fortunate enough to speak to a man who is one of the last people alive to ever see an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in the wild.

These forests are also loaded with other non-bird species such as American Alligator, Cottonmouth, Copperhead, and various Watersnakes, as well Armadillos, River Otters, and the Louisiana Black Bear, all of which we saw, except for the Black Bear. We even recorded some very gutteral sounds of vocalizing alligators, accompanied by a chorus of a thousand frogs!

Once Jacqueline rejoined us in Mississippi, she quickly ushered us off to her dad’s old stomping grounds of Marvel, Arkansas to meet with some of the farmers who use land that was once bottomland hardwood forest.

We spoke with them about all sorts of topics, including the challenges of farming former swampland, increased farming efficiency and the subsequent near disappearance of the Northern Bobwhite, the discrepancy in property ownership betweeen white and black farmers, and the use of Dicamba as a herbicide to control weeds such as the oft-hated Pigweed, but which also has a bad habit of drifting into backyards and across treelines, leaving many non-target tree and plants species browning and dead.

While interviewing some of these farmers and others on our journey, we’ve sensed defensive attitudes towards several topics even before we mentioned them. This is especially true regarding the use of Dicamba, the presence of industry, and climate change.

I personally think this speaks to some of the divides this project looks to help heal. People feel attacked even though they are often just doing their best to make a living for themselves and their families. Outside groups who have sown false narratives for their own benefit have largely contributed to these feelings of judgement and anger, and have driven a wedge between good-natured people who would otherwise be bonding over strong family values and the joy of recreating in clean, healthy environments.

On our first night exploring Marvel, we made our way by accident to a small state park outside town. We had no expectations whatsoever when we stepped outside the car at Louisiana Purchase State Park, but we were blown away by its beauty. There wasn’t another person around. The place was eerily silent and still except for the occassional singing Prothonotary Warbler and a pair of very vocal Barred Owls.

Each one of us walked down the boardwalk alone, with only our feelings of awe to keep us company. To think that large swaths of the country were once this beautiful is both mind-blowing and heartbreaking. I think I can speak for Jacqueline when I say this moment was extremely moving for her and pivotal for her deeper understanding and acceptance of the value of intact ecosystems. For the project, it further cemented the core mission of speaking for these ecosystems and sharing their beauty with the hope of deeper connection and conservation.