I remember traveling as a young boy with my father and grandfather to the earthen dam being built on the Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River by Alabama Power Company. It ultimately created Lewis Smith Lake in 1961, a popular recreation spot and the deepest lake in the state, touching Cullman, Walker, and Winston counties. My grandmother, who grew up in the area, could point out places under the lake where farms used to be; she could also point out a spot where a covered bridge was somewhere “down there.” The tiny Winston County town of Fall’s City was entirely submerged, as were cemeteries throughout the area. Some families chose to move their loved ones, while others chose to let them lie in peace at the bottom of the lake.
A few years later, traveling with my dad to a business appointment in Anniston, I was confused when I saw a series of docks and rock jetties jutting out onto dry land off I-20. Dad explained that the area was about to be flooded to create Lake Logan Martin. These soon-to-be “lake homes” were getting a jump on their lakeside property. Another Alabama Power Company project.
I understand the reasons for these mid-century projects, and I have always admired Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” legislation during the Depression and the benefits those initiatives, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, brought to rural areas of north Alabama. But I have also been concerned about what was lost as we grow increasingly aware of costs to the environment from human intervention in the past couple of centuries.
My reading has taken an environmental turn over the last few years. Some of it was from a commitment to read more of the writing of biologist / environmentalist E.O. Wilson. But the bulk of it is just a growing environmental awareness that has increased as the threats to our well-being from environmental abuse and neglect have become more obvious.
Here is some of the reading I have been doing over the past couple of years, illustrating the wide variety of environmental writing available. A good sampler is The Gulf South: An Anthology of Environmental Writing (2021), edited by Tori Bush and Richard Goodman, with content stretching back into the 1800s. Salleyland (2023), by Whit Gibbons, documents the Gibbons family’s adventures on 100-acres of South Carolina land. The Overstory (2018), by Richard Powers, is a brilliant novel in which the trees become the protagonists.
Occasionally, there are peripheral essays that fit the bill, such as “Homewood’s Salamander Migration and Festival” in James Seay Brown Jr.’s Distracted by Alabama (2022), about a salamander crossing at a creek near me. A friend recently alerted me to “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” (1946), a lovely essay by George Orwell that fits neatly into modern sensibilities about appreciating the nature around us.
My reading of E. O. Wilson’s 1994 autobiography, Naturalist, led me to move on to read and review Richard Rhodes’s biography, Scientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature (2021), which was a nice augmentation to the autobiography. That inspired me to seek out another Rhodes biography, John James Audubon: The Making of an American (2004), which, in turn, inspired me to finally acquire John James Audubon: The Birds of America, a collection of prints of the original watercolors from Audubon’s 1827-1838 series.
One novel is nestled among the over thirty books that comprise E. O. Wilson’s oeuvre. Anthill (2010) is a coming-of-age story set in Alabama, partially in an area that calls to mind the wilderness of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. It’s fitting then, that E. O. Wilson wrote the Foreword to Ben Raines’s Saving America’s Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation’s Most Biodiverse River System (2020) about the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
Lest that book title seems like hyperbole, consider these facts from the book’s first pages:
There are more species of oaks on a single hillside on the banks of the Alabama River than you can find anywhere else in the world … Thanks to the Mobile River Basin, the state of Alabama is home to more species of freshwater fish, mussels, snails, turtles and crawfish than any other state.
For instance, Alabama is home to ninety-seven crawfish species. Louisiana, famous the world over for boiled crawfish, has just thirty-two species; California, three times the size of Alabama, has but nine. There are four hundred and fifty species of freshwater fish in the state, or about one-third of all species known in the entire nation … When it comes to turtles, … the Mobile-Tensaw Delta has eighteen species … More than the Amazon. More then the Mekong. More than any other river system on Earth.
Here’s one more startling passage:
[T]he Cahaba River is home to one hundred and fifty species of fish, more species than you find in the entire state of California. Imagine, roughly one-sixth of all the freshwater fish species known in the United States live in a single Alabama river that is just one hundred and ninety-four miles long.
Raines complements his writing about the Mobile-Tensaw Delta with his stunning photography of the natural vistas throughout the region, parts of which can only be reached by wading long distances through swamps and wetlands. Raines knows the area well; his team found the remains of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to illegally enter the country, its charred remnants buried in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Raines’s 2022 book, The Last Slave Ship: The True Story of How Clotilda Was Found, Her Descendants, and an Extraordinary Reckoning, explores that important find.
Much of what Raines writes about the Mobile-Tensaw Delta was gathered through his many years as an environmental reporter, documentary filmmaker, and executive director of the Weeks Bay Foundation. He speaks truth to the negligence of Alabama political leaders to rigorously enforce environmental guidelines and writes about the environmental damage caused by the dams that utility companies have built along waterways statewide. As Raines celebrates the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and the vast river system that feeds into it, he also addresses the impediments to annual fish migrations that the networks of dams imposed – something I naively wondered about as a kid watching those lakes emerge.
With its lead in environmental riches and diversity, the state of Alabama spends less on environmental protection than any other state. Raines examines the state’s dilemma: Will Alabama continue to be the most ecologically diverse place on the continent, or will it lead the nation with the most species’ extinctions? It cannot continue to be both.
Raines exposes some ludicrous things: When an organization he headed won the Alabama Wildlife Foundation’s annual “Governor’s Conservation Award,” the award featured an image of a mountain goat that has never been found in Alabama and is primarily native to the Canadian Rockies. An award-winning documentary by an Alabama public radio station about Alabama’s beleaguered prison system was entitled “Deliberate Indifference.” That title could just as easily be applied to the state’s handling of our vast natural resources. Unfortunately, it’s normal for Alabamians who love the place to be constantly ashamed and embarrassed by our public officials.
Raines clearly loves the place, especially its abundance of natural, untouched resources. Saving America’s Amazon is his clarion call for us to work harder to preserve them.