Bill Bryson, exemplary writer, humorist, and grammarian, wrote a book a while back called “A Walk in the Woods,” detailing his adventures walking the Appalachian Trail, part of which runs through my home state of New Jersey. The book was funny on many levels, and the struggles of neophyte woodsman trying to navigate unfamiliar terrain and the mishaps that ensued seemed to resonate with people everywhere. In short, the book was a huge success. I’m not plugging for Bryson here; he does perfectly fine by himself (although it is a great book, and well worth reading). It’s just that I couldn’t help but think about his book on a recent run around the streets of our provisional North Shore home of Madisonville, which is bounded by Bayou DeZaire.
It is no exaggeration to say I grew up in the woods. When I was six, we moved from comfortable suburbia to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, a deciduous swamp that is one of the Northeast’s last preserved wetlands. I spent my days tooling around in the woods among ducks, deer, fox, snakes, and hawks, and crossing the slow-moving Black Brook over fallen trees. Once we even “found” a flat bottom boat that we paddled up and down the river until our neighbor caught us in it, and then we were paddled again. However, nothing in my woodsman training prepared me for the levels of deadliness found around every corner, both real and imagined, in Louisiana.
In one day I almost tore an ACL avoiding a stick I thought a snake, and and MCL avoiding a snake I thought a stick. I’ve been chased by every unleashed neighborhood dog (it seems every house has one), as well as all the ownerless curs on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain. In one case I even had to take one of the dogs that followed me, a particularly obtuse chocolate lab, “CC”, back to her owners after she chased me down for more than a mile while jumping into every low-lying drainage ditch along the way. Every time I stepped over to grab her collar I was certain that I was about to be descended upon by cotton-mouths or snatched by a camouflaged gator and “Death-Rolled” into oblivion, the GPS in my iPhone pulsing like the clock in the crocodile’s stomach in Peter Pan.
Every time I open the screen door to step out onto the porch, I feel like I’m entering an episode of Wild Kingdom, as cats scamper away, the neighborhood raccoon darts beneath the porch, and the monkey grass vibrates like a sax player’s reed. Crickets bound and lizards leap onto the chain link fence, their incandescent green scales blending perfectly with the overgrown grass along the fence’s base. Sometimes unidentifiable to me reptilian heads poke out of the grass: I am constantly scanning for them, and I fear, them for me.
Many of my fears are probably fueled by the childhood stories that Rylan regaled me with: being chased by side-winding blue-runners that her uncle had to decapitate with a machete or the water moccasin filled snake pits she had to jump over on her way to the school bus. Or maybe it was the time her grandfather challenged a six-foot gator with a steel, 14-tine bow rake, only to have that gator turn the business end of the rake into the letter V and snap the handle (and nearly his arm) in two. Why the retired police chief did not use a gun to dispatch our reptilian interloper is another matter completely, but it doesn’t make the fact that he was gator jousting on his front sidewalk any less terrifying to me.
I could easily dismiss my fears as paranoia… it’s not like we personally know anyone who was ever bitten by a snake or feasted on by a hungry gator. And the apocryphal tales spun by various locals have the credence of all local folk legends that happened “somewhere” at “sometime” to “someone.” Still, the flattened carcass of a large brown snake — impressed into the asphalt like a hieroglyphic I must gamely leap over — does nothing to assuage my fears. If anything it coalesces them and confirms that at any moment some manner of reptile or mammal is about to leap forth and snatch me in its barb-wired jaws.
After a recent dinner at The Chimes in Covington — the dread of my imagination working overtime after too many half-priced oysters and Abita Ambers — I heard a thunderous rustle in the trees as we walked back to the car. Instinctively, I stepped back, only to have what appeared to be a large rodent cross my path. It may have been carrying a snake in its mouth… I don’t know.
“Look, a Nutria!” I clucked out to Rylan, pointing to the hole in the bushes into which the beast disappeared.
“It was a cat, dumb-ass,” she wryly replied.
At which point I gave her the keys.
Because now I know Where the Wild Things Are, all around me, whispering… conspiring… lurking… under the sinister, oblique moon of Bayou DeZaire…