Monday, November 27, 2006

The Western Edge

I spent part of Thanksgiving in Monroe, Louisiana, which is situated on the western edge of the embayment and the eastern edge of Tertiary Uplands, a habitat characterized by mixed pine-hardwood forests and sandy ridges. A visit to my father's wouldn't be complete without a trip to Black Bayou National Wildlife Refuge, a small acreage dedicated to preserving the swamp habitat that everyone associates with Louisiana and southeast Missouri.

At Black Bayou, bur marigolds and sugar plume grass were in full bloom across the swamp. Rails clucked from the grasses and vermilion flycatchers zipped around the tupelo gums. This week marks the 1st anniversary of my arrival to the southeast Missouri lowlands. Because I moved here in the winter, I had full hopes that when spring and summer came the swamps would come alive with the same plants and animals I had associated with places like Black Bayou. It didn't quite happen that way. I clearly didn't know the diversity of various regions of the Mississippi Embayment before I took this job.

The visit to Black Bayou reminded me of the massive changes that southeast Missouri has seen. East of Crowley's Ridge, a lot of the keystone embayment species do not exist. Bur marigolds should be here, so should sugar plume grass. What separates Black Bayou in northeast Louisiana from the swamps of southeast Missouri is a massive ditch system created by a handful of engineers, reeling from the success of the Panama Canal. By 1893, with most of the timber out of the way, engineers saw that southeast Missouri could be drained, farmed and forever changed. In 1905, Missouri Gov. Joseph Wingate signed a bill permitting the formation of the Little River Drainage District which would be supported by tax revenues. Railroad magnates like Louis Houck opposed the district because they wanted to maintain the railroads as the main line of transport for the timber industry and small farms. With the drainage district in place, roads could be installed which would negatively impact the Cotton Belt, Frisco, St. Louis and Iron Mountain railroad lines. But by 1909, with chief engineer Otto Kochtitsky at the helm, the drainage of 750,00 acres into an elaborate ditch system began.

Born in South Bend, Indiana to Polish aristocrats, Kochtitsky was moved to Missouri at a young age and attended schools in Lebanon and Jefferson City. His father was a land commissioner in the state department. He encouraged his son to follow suit and Otto, as a young adult, was placed in charge of surveying the Little River Valley for railroad installation. Otto was hired in 1905 to survey the topography of the southeast lowlands to determine whether a largescale ditching project would be possible. Not only did he report his findings, but Kochtitsky drew up a plan and quickly won the contract bid to conduct the actual drainage project. His invention of the walking excavator made ditch installation a lot easier and the ditching of southeast Missouri's swamps and wetlands was completed by the early 1920s. Kochtitsky's correspondence and legal papers are on file at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis and you can read more here about the history of the Little River Drainage District.

If you go to the various storehouses of Missouri history and ask the curators for historical pictures of southeast Missouri, you'll get boxes of photos from the Little River Drainage District files. There are no pictures of forests or swamps, but thousands, literally thousands of photos of stumps and deep ditches, all carefully labeled and named. Beaver Lake became Headwater Diversion #2, Cypress Pond is now Mainline Ditch #1, and so on. The stumps stretched for miles. I have a copy of the original Kochtitsky survey map that shows where the ditches should be placed to drain the swamps more efficiently. Outside the drainage district, Missouri's rivers and streams curve so circuitously they look like a drawing of a brain. East of Crowley's Ridge, the rivers and wetlands flow in straight lines, all the way to the Arkansas border.

After living here, it's nice to revisit places that haven't been touched by ditch and levee systems. The plants and animals of the embayment certainly deserve as much respect as, say, the plants and animals of the Arctic tundra. I can now spot embayment plants from a mile away, but I'm still not very good with invertebrates. It's been a real treat to learn thoroughly every aspect of a habitat and to understand exactly what's required to make the whole system work, even if it's within a small confine that wasn't spared in the ditching project. Unless I change my career for the umpteenth time I'll have the chance to learn other natural divisions just as well. And frankly, what fun is life if you're not learning?


Anonymous said...

why is molly playing camera shy? thats a really cute picture of you.
did you see the cedar wax wing this time? anv

Allison Vaughn said...

Thanks! Molly was being really recalcitrant that day, over stimulated by squirrels and ducks. I haven't seen a waxwing since Idaho, oddly enough. They're usually all over the possumhaws in the fall. Unless they stripped all the trees and left.