Magazine article Natural History

Sweet Home

Magazine article Natural History

Sweet Home

Article excerpt

A vast flood plain, the delta of the Mississippi River covers 37,500 square miles south of Illinois, especially in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi. The sands and clays transported from the Upper Mississippi basin, an area extending from Pennsylvania to Montana, have made soils in the delta among the richest in the country. When European American pioneers entered the region in the 1820s, they found it mostly covered by mature hardwood forests (deep woods), although Native Americans had cleared openings for agriculture and better hunting grounds. Later in the century, settlers cut down most of the forests for home building, fuel, and various commercial endeavors and subsequently placed the fertile soil under intense cultivation.

When the Mississippi River and its tributaries stayed within their banks, farmers prospered, but more often than not, floodwaters inundated crop after crop. Most farmers soon abandoned the effort to grow crops. Only after the Army Corps of Engineers built an extensive levee system, in the first decade of this century, was much of the cropland reclaimed. In places, the abandoned farmland was never returned to production but was allowed to develop into second-growth forest.

In 1936, the U. S. Forest Service was authorized to purchase 13,200 acres of delta forest in Mississippi, mostly where the trees had never been harvested. This virgin forest area was later rounded out with another 46,650 acres of second-growth forest, and in 1961, the Delta National Forest was officially established. In accordance with its main mission at that time, the Forest Service proceeded to contract with lumber companies to cut down the trees.

All the virgin timber, except for three parcels totaling 160 acres, fell to the ax and the saw. Those remaining acres are now under special management as Research Natural Areas. One of these is the Delta Sweet Gum Research Natural Area, a fifty-acre zone located near the confluence of the Yazoo and Big Sunflower Rivers. It contains perhaps the only virgin stand of sweet gum in the world.

Approaching the natural area in mid-April from the tiny village of Holly Bluff, I parked where the road passed by the area eastern edge and set out on foot. First I had to fight my way through several feet of giant cane. The only bamboo grass native to the eastern United States, giant cane has a hard stem, often fashioned into fishing poles. Giant cane often grows ten feet high or more, and the stems may grow so close together that they form a thicket known as canebrake. Hardly any other vegetation can survive in canebrakes, but a number of animals inhabit them, among them canebrake rattlesnakes and the elusive, endangered Bachman's warbler. After getting through the canebrake, I came to a more open forest and the first sweet gums. …

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