Grady Bottoms

I planted a new pecan orchard in 2014. An orchard which joins another orchard I planted 9 years before. There has always been a low area in this field that would become my new orchard. Although, this spot was dry at the time of planting—the result of drought—I knew the mucky soil and poor drainage in that area would result in standing water following rains and would cause the roots of any trees I planted there to suffocate in the mire, where the trees would, of course, struggle and die.

               So, I didn’t plant trees in that low area, reducing the size of my orchard by about half an acre. If you flew over the orchard now you would see this area as an empty, green-glowing, round slight depression in the earth, with the mirrored surface of a small pool of water at its center reflecting the clouds and sky above like an eye staring into the void. This same wet spot is visible on aerial imagery maps going back to the 1930s and even on hand-drawn survey maps dated 1822.

               On soil maps, this spot, and others like them on our farm, are identified as “Grady soils”. We often call them “Grady bottoms”. I love the sound of that—Grady Bottoms. It would make a good pen name or alias. Samuel Clemens used the moniker Mark Twain. Maybe I should adopt the name Grady Bottoms.

               Lately the old Grady bottom has remained nearly full or at least partially filled with water running off from the adjacent peanut field and the frequent heavy rains we had during winter and spring. This has created somewhat of a vernal pool, which we call a “wet-weather pond”. This little pool, which was initially a consternation, has become a great delight to me over the last few months.

               If I were a rich man I would have it dug out to create a legitimate, full-fledged pond. But, pecan orchards tend to create a lot of fallen limbs, which for lack of any better alternative, are often piled and burned. Since it never stayed wet for significant lengths of time I usually piled my limbs from the orchard in the Grady bottom for burning. However, this winter the rains became frequent. The water pooled and the ponded area grew and grew until the water began to back up into the edges of the orchard, leaving 8-10 trees standing in water for several weeks before it receded back into the Grady bottom and with the next rain, the cycle would happen again.

               I wasn’t able to get my limbs burned as planned and the rise and fall of the water level began to shift my neatly stacked piles around, leaving branches to float at random here and there. Pecans began to sprout along the water’s edge and little seedling trees began popping up. I’d have to mow them down later as the soil dried up. Marsh-loving grasses and a big obnoxious weed called curly dock crept in and began sprouting in the shallows and at the water’s edge. Turtles and tiny frogs began taking over the orchard near the bottom.

               The bottom stayed so wet for so long that I began to affectionately call it “the water hole”. Despite its many inconveniences the water hole took on a redeeming value as spring settled in, which made it all worth it. Birds began flocking to this little pool. Great blue herons, little blue herons, green-backed herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, mergansers, grebes, wood ducks, mallards, killdeer, solitary sandpipers. I even saw a snipe. They really do exist. It seemed the diversity of birds increased around the water hole by the day.

               Then one day a pair of ducks showed up that I had never seen there before. In fact, I had never seen them in Georgia before. With their bright pinkish-orange bills, distinct black, white and chestnut brown markings, and long orange legs, black-bellied whistling ducks have an unmistakable goose-like appearance. These clownish ducks are one of the few duck species to nest in trees. So, what better place for them than an orchard?

               I was surprised to see black-bellied whistling ducks here because I had only seen them once before near Weslaco, Texas, while on a job interview years ago. My field guide from the early 1990s shows them inhabiting both coasts of Mexico and the Gulf Coast of the U.S. from Texas to Florida. A quick internet search told me that although there were random sightings of black-bellied whistling duck in Georgia beginning in the mid 1970’s, it was not until 2006 that a breeding pair was found in Brooks County, Georgia. Since that time, their numbers have increased dramatically within the state.

               It is believed the black-bellied whistling ducks spreading north along the Georgia Coast and through river corridors like the Savannah and Flint, which brought them to me, are the result of a relatively sudden range expansion by the Florida populations. Biologists seem to be concerned that black-bellied whistling ducks may cause problems for the wood ducks that inhabits our river swamps since both species are known to nest in tree cavities and wood duck boxes. I share this concern but I find myself hoping that the two can co-exist.

               The ducks feed in the shallows where they dabble with their bills in search of aquatic vegetation and seeds. In the afternoons they often rest, standing on one foot on a branch pile with their bills tucked into a wing. Though they appear to be sleeping they are still wary  and as I slip from tree to tree trying to get close enough for a photo they somehow know I’m there. They let me get about 100 ft away before they take to the water and swim to the other side of the water hole. I never do get a decent photo.

               Eventually two more pair of black-bellied whistling ducks show up to the water hole and hang out each day. As summer drags on the rains become increasingly rare and temperatures rage up near 100 degrees. You could choke on the humidity but the water hole begins to shrink as the sun’s intense heat pulls water vapor into the atmosphere and the soil soaks up moisture into the hidden places we cannot see below ground. As the water hole shrinks smaller and smaller, the birds show up in fewer numbers. Eventually only one pair of black-bellied whistling ducks show up each day until finally the water hole becomes too small for even a single pair and they leave for a more reliable body of water.

               On a farm, one can get caught up in the jobs that have to be done to produce a crop and care for the land. As so often happens with the familiar people and places in our lives, its easy to fall into the bad habit of taking these things for granted. In our own self-absorption we can lose sight of important things all together.

               The water hole, this Grady bottom, became a reminder that the big plan is not about me. Farms are more than just a place where your food is grown or where some of us make a living. They are places full of life, death, decay, renewal, change, and beauty, often on scales that we don’t recognize. They are the places at which we interact most closely with the greater world that supports life, of which we are a part. Our first and last connection.

               If you spend enough time in settings where its clear that mother nature runs the show, every now and then she will reach up and slap you upside the head as if to say “pay attention”. She does this sometimes with experiences so miraculous, so beautiful in their simplicity that you can’t help but awaken from the fog of self-absorption. She does this with things like the smell of a rain coming across the fields at the end of a hot summer afternoon. It is the smell of mercy. Things like a doe with a pair of fawns at play as they skirt the edge of the yard, strangely comfortable in their manner and unaware they are being watched. A zebra-wing butterfly taking nectar as she flits among the purple verbena flowers at the field edge. An otter emerging out of the creek bottom to cross the road. The colors of the evening sky when the sun reaches that certain angle late in the day. And yes, the sudden appearance of black-bellied whistling ducks at a mundane low spot holding water in a field. Magical things. Things that tell us to appreciate, if only for a moment, the lives and processes at work which do not depend on our own narrow obligations.

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