Spanish Moss and the Honey Island Swamp

If, when you see the term “Spanish Moss”, you immediately think of the 1976 song by Gordon Lightfoot, you should probably get out more.

In the pristine river swamps of Honey Island, just outside New Orleans, Spanish Moss is the name given to the bromeliad that can be seen hanging from the gnarled cypress trees rising from the shallow water of the swamp and contributing to the somewhat gothic appearance to the landscape. The Honey Island area is reputedly one of the wildest habitats left in the USA.

Spanish Moss adorning the trees at Honey Island Swamp

Spanish Moss adorning the trees at Honey Island Swamp

There are several companies that offer boat trips to the swamps in the vicinity of New Orleans, and during a very short visit to the city in October 2009 I chose “Cajun Encounters” for a morning swamp tour. I had no particular reason for choosing this company, save for the advertising pamphlets at the hotel, but it turned out to be a most enjoyable and informative outing.

At the start of the swamp tour

At the start of the swamp tour

Time stands still in this 70,000 acre Nature Preserve and save for a few notices fixed to the trees and the small boatload of tourists up ahead, there is, superficially, little obvious evidence of human impact once in the swamp proper.

Honey Island Swamp

Honey Island Swamp

There have been reported sighting s of the Louisiana version of Bigfoot in these swamps and it is quite easy to imagine that the shadowy movement at the edge of your peripheral vision – gone the very instant you turned your head – could have been him. Locally this version of Bigfoot ia called “Wookie” and is  supposedly the result of interbreeding between a chimpanzee that escaped from a circus and the local alligator population.

The water is often covered with a living blanket of green that looks solid enough to walk on and which closes quickly behind the boat to leave no trace of our passing. The eerie shadows and the trees draped with moss, weave a fantasy into which myths of gremlins and goblins and trolls and Bigfoot would fit quite comfortably.

The floating carpet between the trees

The floating carpet between the trees

In reality, we are told, there are numerous alligators and other animals in the swamp – wild boar, deer, wolves and an endless variety of snakes. In truth on our short two-hour trip we saw naught with four legs but one small alligator and a few turtles.

Turtles in Honey Island Swamp

Turtles in Honey Island Swamp

Young alligator

Young alligator

Birds are fairly numerous but we found animals to be conspicuous by their absence; the less obvious impact of our destructive species. Hunting drove the alligators to the edge of extinction in the area, although they are now staging a comeback thanks to local conservation efforts; and no doubt the absence of other animals has the same cause. And the trees, as magnificent as they are, are mostly fairly young as the older and bigger trees were harvested for their timber in times gone by.

Honey Island Swamp

Honey Island Swamp

Honey Island gets its name, not surprisingly, from the erstwhile presence of bees in the area, and it lies between the East Pearl and the West Pearl Rivers. Many of the houses along the river are built on stilts to keep them above the soggy ground, but in spite of this some seem to be slowly sinking into the soft ground below.

House on the West Pearl River

House on the West Pearl River

House on the West Pearl River

House on the West Pearl River

A greater threat to the houses than sinking is that of being blown away, and in 2005 Hurricane Katrina saw several of the houses blown from their supports and into the swamp.

There was a house here before Hurricane Katrina

There was a house here before Hurricane Katrina

But back to Spanish Moss. This was at one time an important export from Louisiana, with a value of over $2.5 million per year in its heyday of the late 1920s. It is the source of the “horsehair” that was used to stuff mattresses and upholstered furniture and was also used to strengthen the cement mix used in construction. Strange.

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