by Will H. Blackwell, Jr.
Hunting (binoculars and camera only) some dozen miles above the “Y” made by the confluence of the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers, I reached the marshy flanks of a large Oxbow-lake. This landlocked river-bend was cut off by diminished flow, during a northern ice-age, from its parent, The Mississippi.
After considerable muddy trudging, I came to a robust growth of bull-rushes, only to realize I was about to set foot in a substantial, if mostly concealed, inlet-slue of the lake.
First glancing side-to-side (only shortly before having been startled by the aggressive movement of a territorial water-moccasin) I peered out, between the hand-parted rushes, across this now-revealed, irregular spread of shallow, silted water.
Certain objects came slowly into focus—the kinds of images you’re not sure at first you’re really seeing—that were….Well, let’s just say, it was a good thing I didn’t step right out into the water, setting off a tell-tale vibration of ripples.
And I dared not attempt to position myself to take a photograph. All I could do was stand as still as possible—barely audibly breathing—caught up in the growing realization of what I was actually viewing.
The 13-foot male alligator—and gravid, 10-and-a-half-foot female—drifted, motionless in this low backwater, like twin timbers, invisibly lashed—their backs roughened as rounds of aging bark—jaws clamped to disguise bladed teeth, interlocking like knife-sets concealed within the death-cast of a medieval Iron-Maiden.
Their tapered, rudder-tails, menacingly still but instantly labile, were potentially lethal weapons in their own right—slashing, muscular, mouth-less but heavily armored water-snakes.
The young, from last-year’s mating, naively splashed the surface nearby. Their side-rotary legs—lacking the direct forward capability of more highly evolved Vertebrates—churned the water, annoyingly wheel-like, as if trying to run on some imagined reach of dry land.
The patriarch gator, implacable, complacent in feigning unwariness, intermittently blew away wafting patches of diminutive duckweed—drawn to his massive, vise-grip snout by the water’s filmy tension—with seemingly effortless, if nonetheless dragon-like, bursts from deeply internally parted, fitted-valve nostrils.
His oval, serpent’s eyes—merely simulating sleep—remained mostly covered by the shuttering panels of oversized third-eyelids—a legacy descended from the distant age of dinosaurs.
There was scant question of the huge male’s aplomb as Animus-lord of this particular, sluggish, brown-water domain—his dominant lineage more ancient than the slue, the lake, even The Mississippi—his insidious being the incarnate soul, the embodiment, of the swamp itself.
The female, ferocious if need be, meekly followed his suit at every slight turn in the water—a pool mostly placid, except for the almost game-like activity of the young gators.
If the old male knew I was there, he paid me little heed. He appeared to understand there was no present need to demonstrate his apex status within this marshland universe.
Surprisingly perhaps, this aged but still-formidable lizard-emperor of the bayou seemed to portray an almost mammalian contentment—floating—beside his elongate, egg-bearing mate of many years—among this current crop of playful youngsters, hatched not quite a year ago.
His brief intervals of attention to the young gators, casually protective it seemed, suggested a certain sense of family—something perhaps, in fleeting moments at least, even bordering on affection—an emotion not usually associated with adult-male reptiles.
All of this to me, as a biologist, was not only intensely intriguing, but “an education.” It’s one thing to read about such things in a book, or see them in a zoo (which I confess to doing); but, it’s quite another to actually experience them in nature—“in the wild,” as they say.
Any previous “experience” I had with alligators was admittedly mainly “academic”—Nonetheless, at this point, my mind was flashing all over the place, inadvertently fishing for memories, anywhere they might reside.
I remembered wondering some years ago—after looking in a couple of “authoritative” zoological texts (the initial reason for opening these books I can’t recall)—which spelling-permutation of the scientific name of the native gator was actually correct? Was it Alligator “mississippiensis,” as one book had it, and as indeed seemed logical, based on the spelling of “Mississippi.” Or, was it Alligator “mississipiensis” (i.e., dropping the second “p”), as another book insisted was correct (this latter “epithet” apparently having a defensible basis in the “original spelling” of the name, coined by “a Frenchman” way back in 1803)—Well, in any case, this is the kind of nomenclatural nitpicking that “professional taxonomists” often seem to relish perpetrating, on unsuspecting “lay people” ingenuous enough to ask “what-is-it?” questions.
The above involuntary mental path leading me nowhere, I then recalled I had read in an introductory poetry book once (I apologize, I can’t remember which one) that you will never understand something (some creature), completely, just by knowing its scientific description, its scientific name, and so forth. The example used in this book was an eagle. You can, for instance, describe various technical features and details of an eagle—flight-feathers, beak dimensions, characteristics of the retina of the eye, talon curvature, etc.—but you can never sense it, fully—never capture its true essence, its “spirit”—unless you see it in action, or (pushing poetry as they were) at least read about it in manifestly non-scientific, and decidedly more exciting, terms. The sample poem they highlighted was Tennyson’s short but magnificent verse about an eagle, suddenly diving from a high cliff—Oh, you know, the one that starts off: “He clasps the crag with crooked hands”—nice metaphor, and alliteration, n’est-ce pas?
Well, anyway, my free-association being soon brought, temporarily at least, somewhat back under control, I began focusing on—rethinking—all the sights and behaviors of alligators I had been observing over these mere minutes, that seemed more like acutely fascinating hours—dilated time, yes, but without a second wasted (in spite of my rapid, rambling thoughts).
So, what had I learned, from my up close (close as I wanted to get, anyway) and personal experience with these amazing, living relics of the Mesozoic? What could I logically extrapolate—“take away,” as it were, from all of this?
Well, without question, these gators must have something going for them—I mean, if they have survived this long—especially in the face of “threats” of various kinds, from human-beings for example (alligator-shoes and -handbags came to mind, for some reason). We humans are just a mere drop in the geological bucket compared to the total evolutionary time-span of alligators, crocodiles, and their kind.
Perhaps the fact that they really haven’t changed all that much, in all that time, is part of the basis of their success? They are not constantly altering behavior, with new “fads,” “fashions,” “wants,” and “activities,” like us humans, now are they? Need I itemize such things? They stick to what they do, and they do it well!
Or, perhaps a deep understanding, even if largely instinctive, lurks somewhere within their linear, non-inflated, all-that-is-necessary, reptilian brains—a secret knowledge, for long-range survival, that perhaps we Homo sapiens no longer possess?
On the other hand, since the basic, underlying, functional foundation of our own brains is reptilian—or, so I read in a book—maybe we do “hold” some hidden, untapped, species-survival skill (even though it doesn’t necessarily seem like it)—knowledge now buried so far beneath our respective, expanded (overblown?), higher-cognitive, football-loving, often free-associating, cerebral cortices, that we are unable to access it—“a wisdom” that we can no longer “bring to the surface,” so to speak.
When you think about it, we would almost have to have such latent skills, cloistered down in our DNA, somewhere. Though not immediately apparent, perhaps, there are indeed similarities of gator behavior to our own—possibilities for some grant-funded “comparative ethologist” at a southern university (say, like Ole Miss) to investigate—to really “get off on” (academically, of course). After all, is it not true that all us Vertebrates have (or start off with, I should say) the makings of “gills,” and a “tail?”
Are not all of us backboned critters, genetically, “animal brothers” underneath our respective thick, or thin, hides? Is this not perhaps especially true of crocodilians, like alligators, which, more like us, and unlike other reptiles, have a fully four-chambered heart (I mentioned being “academic,” didn’t I? “Nerdy” is kind of trite these days, don’t you think?). I could, here, perhaps engage in “wordplay,” centering around gators “truly having a heart,” or some such emotional nonsense; but, I’ll spare you the insipid personification!
Regardless, part of my hyperbolic, again free-lancing “thought-chain” (still a bit taut for “daydreaming”) at this point was: Maybe, just maybe, these “Big-river gators”—these huge amphibious beasts—frightening, stealthy, camouflaged, swampland-predators, with sharks’ mouths that reek of rotting half-digested flesh, that will drag you under the surface and hold you down till you drown, before ripping you apart—are somewhat misunderstood creatures, after all!
Possibly—in certain ways, that is—they are really much more like us than we might at first suspect—than we, perhaps, might really wish to admit!
Their place in “the great chain-of-being” seemed now ever more firmly, even warmly (for a cold-blooded creature, that is), cast along the winding, “upward” path of features leading to those benchmark traits that we might ultimately define as “human”—or some such benevolent, “anthropocentric” contemplation as this.
Well, this was the sort of thing I was conjecturing, anyway. And, so I indeed pleasantly, even wistfully, supposed—until--
Something seemed to change across the face of the slue—a different sound, perhaps—perhaps a sense of the beginnings of a surface-current—or some vaguely ominous shift, deeper within the as yet mostly calm water.
Yes, the alligators were still out there, not far in front of me, seemingly much the same—still, apparently, a “family unit.” So, maybe it was just a slight change in speed, or direction, of the wind.
The old male gator drew his head up slowly, in a drip of syrupy water, by seeming stages—a series of upward and almost imperceptible lateral movements—his mouth coming open slightly in the process. And then--
Amid an apparent yawn, of such magnitude and indifference as to express an obvious disdain for any impending threat to his level, reedy realm—of deceptively indeterminate border—he, unexpectedly, swung his massive angle-toothed maw sideways, and swallowed an unsuspecting, excessively frolicking, one-foot-male-yearling-offspring, whole!
Any remaining reveries were suddenly severed—in one harsh, irrevocable bite of reality!
Originally from Mississippi, Will H. Blackwell, Jr. is an emeritus professor (botany), Miami University (Ohio). After retirement, he returned south (Tuscaloosa, AL), and is presently adjunct in Biological Sciences at The University of Alabama where he continues work on aquatic fungi. With a long-standing interest in creative writing, he has published poems in various journals, including: Blue Unicorn, Illumen, Poem, Scifaikuest, Slant, and Star*Line; a recent short-story is in the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.
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Passionately Ran, Compassionately Fed.