Journal entry, Month 5, Day 2: Spiders, Mosquitoes and Gators – Oh my!
I am not a fan of spiders. Especially large ones. And even more so when I’m staring up at one from a sleeping bag while lying on a wooden floor in the middle of a South Georgia swamp. Nor do I appreciate extremely large walking stick-like insects running over said sleeping bag. Or the Amazon-sized wood roaches. Sleep is elusive.
Have you ever seen a coyote with a credit card? Animals are smart enough not to have jobs. This parlance was one of many Colbert shared with me during our time together. That, and all capitalism leads to human destruction and not infrequently reminding me that if I wished to live to be 130 I’d best not go to a hospital.
Colbert Sturgeon is America’s Crocodile Dundee. He lives deep in the Georgia swamps. He traps and sells furs to make necessity money. Sometimes, he and his partner, Heather Burrill, collect scrap metal and other recyclables. But most of the time Colbert wanders the swamp, living a life off the grid he always dreamed of living when he was a stockbroker.
Colbert left the financial planning industry to learn survival and simple living skills. After taking numerous courses from many famous schools, he built his cabin in the woods. He has taught survival and simple living skills for more than 20 years all over the country. And most times, wherever he is needed, Colbert walks. He has walked from Georgia to the Dakotas. If you’ve traveled the I-64 corridor you might have even passed him sleeping in one of the many wooded medians. He is a well-known instructor at many earthskills events across North America.
His partner, Heather, has spent over a decade teaching earthskills and pioneer living skills to people of all ages at camps and programs throughout Canada and the U.S. She specializes in the use of natural materials to create traditional crafts, such as clothing and containers. She also is an expert on local wild foods and medicines. I had a slight sniffle when I arrived –the start of a cold. Heather gave me an eyedropper filled with tincture of wild elderberry – homemade, of course.
The tincture contained fresh elderberries and organic grain alcohol. It’s a potent antiviral and is used for colds and flus, usually at the onset. Heather uses it to treat infections because of its stimulation of the immune system. And living in the swamp, a healthy immune system is vitally important.
We tracked beaver through a low water swamp just west of the Okefenokee. Giant, Jurassic-looking cypress trees towered over us while root nodules protruded from the dark, spongy ground like something from Ridley Scott’s Alien. Trapping and foraging ensure continued survival.
I drank rainwater from barrels used to collect runoff from the hut’s roof. Though the barrels were covered, they still contained mosquito larvae that wiggled and squirmed. They continued to wiggle and squirm as they made their way down my throat. It gave me something else to think about that night as I lay on my sleeping mat trying for some sleep.
I slept in an abandoned fishing shack about 50 yards from the black water of some unnamed swamp tributary. The water is black because of the high tannin content. As vegetation decays, tannin leaches into the water causing the acid content to increase. It’s the tannin that makes the river dark like slow flowing coffee or tea.
A swamp walk-about was announced for the next day. Being low-water season, we were able to travel long distances unrestricted by flooded cypress groves, gators and snakes. One of the first things I noticed was Colbert’s aversion to shoes; he travels on bare feet throughout the swamp. While unusual, it is not unheard of. Many outdoors people do this. Perhaps the most famous is Cody Lundin. You can catch him on one of the Discovery Channel’s most popular programs, Dual Survival. Colbert told me it helps him connect to the earth better. He can feel temperatures, wetness and vegetation that tell him about his terrain long before he can be surprised by the same.
As we walked through the swamp Colbert points to large cypress logs wedged at strange angles high in trees. He tells me he places them in large trees during high water – to keep them safe for use later. He explains, “Next high water I’ll float them down to the camp and use them to build additions to the cabin.” Until then, visitors are left wondering at the strange grey cypress sculptures perched high above them. And do they ever fall? “Not that I’m aware of. Besides, if they fall in the swamp and nobody is there to see, do they make a noise?” He smiles and we continue onward, deeper into the swamp to a hidden camp.
Before arriving at Colbert’s secret camp, we stop in the midst of some rare, higher ground overlooking another tendril of a tributary. He stops and looks wistfully at a swamp tupelo tree. The tree is ancient. Nearly 70 feet tall at a guess, with a large buttressed trunk that looks like it would take 4 of us to get our arms around. He lays a hand upon it, and turns to me with a tear in his eye. “This is where I will die,” he tells me. He’s not sad.
“This is my favorite tree,” he says. “And when I die, when it’s my time, I want to share that moment with Nature – I want to be one with the earth.” His desire to be one with the earth is not unique – many Nature-oriented cultures share this desire. Ancient, and even some modern day cultures, know that death from hunger, disease or from an enemy is always close. However, it is unique thinking in our consumptive, Western culture.
Colbert talks a lot about the consumption of products and services with very little consideration of what those same products and services do to our environment. And that includes death-services. He asks me to think about it. “Is there anything more natural than sitting beneath an old, favorite tree and drifting off to sleep; only waking when you reach the other side?” The body becomes food for the land. And this, Colbert says, is what the end of life should be. Not some sterile, medicine-filled husk of a corpse that’s then pumped with fluids to preserve it from proper decay.
We sit that evening talking and sharing the bounty of the swamp. Pecans, gathered from a nearby public park, complement venison and assorted wild greens. While there, I will eat gator snatched from the dark waters. The taste, if you can imagine, is not unlike fish and venison – together. Not too bad. In fact, after a long day exploring the swamp, it tasted pretty darn good.
Later, as the short light of day wanes, Colbert rocks in his favorite chair. Perhaps the chair, more than anything else, visually represents the chosen path he has taken. The back of the chair seems ordinary enough. It is a standard-looking porch rocker, the oak fading from weathered use and a back of bleached woven wicker. However, the seat is woven from Colbert’s old ties. Wide stripes, bright colors and polka dots bear the weight of his decisions.
Leaving the stockbroker life behind, Colbert has chosen a life of simplicity. There is only food, clothing and shelter to worry about. And with skills learned over three decades, he seems to have a good handle on the basics. He is at one with the swamp. More importantly, he is at peace with his life choice.
Can the same be said about the rest of us?
Next week I will introduce you to Snow Bear, a Cherokee elder tasked with preserving his tribe’s heritage. He is also a central, unifying figure for many living the off-grid life in the U.S.