A while back, a friend in a reading group recommended that I read a 1907 novel by Gene Stratton-Porter titled “Freckles.” My friend said she thought it would be right up my alley because it is about a forest ranger’s love of nature.
She was right. Freckles is an interesting read with a pretty lively plot, but the best part of the whole thing, the thing that made my friend recommend it, is the main character’s love of the plants and creatures of the Limberlost swamp as seen through Stratton-Porter’s winsome nature writing.
The book is about a young man, nicknamed “Freckles,” who had been raised in a Chicago orphanage but who was turned out of the orphanage when he became an adult. Because he is missing one of his hands he is considered useless by many employers, so he wanders homeless for some time.
Eventually he is hired as a forest ranger by a timber company in the Limberlost swamp. His only duty is to walk the boundaries of the company’s timber tract twice a day watching for timber thieves — a seven-mile hike one way in the morning and seven miles back in the afternoon.
Being a city boy, he is scared to death of the swamp at first but rapidly learns to love the walking and the solitude. It turns out that he is a born naturalist and a voracious reader, so eventually he learns all there is to know about the flora and fauna of what he considers to be “his swamp.”
I got to thinking about Stratton-Porter’s novel during a day-hike at Percy Quin State Park’s nature trail. Some acquaintances had bemoaned the fact that the trail had been hurricane-damaged and then neglected for so long that it was grown up and impassable.
But last September the Scouts of McComb Troop 124, led by Nathan Wells and Jimmy Campbell, did a walk-through, clearing and marking the trail corridor and verifying that the bridges and boardwalks were all intact. Nathan told me later that the trail was, indeed, passable and that they had cleaned up a lot of the hurricane damage, especially on the north end of the trail.
But I’d not been back out there myself recently, and when some more friends started asking me about the status of the nature trail, I decided to go see for myself. Sure enough, the woods were as beautiful as I’d ever seen them and the trail was clean and clear with intact bridges and boardwalks. I made the entire 8-mile loop in about four hours.
There are a lot of similarities between me and Freckles and between Percy Quin and Limberlost swamp. I consider myself to be a self-taught naturalist, just like the protagonist. The distances are about the same — 8 miles around Percy Quin, 7 miles across the boundary of the Limberlost tract.
But the main similarity that I see is that Freckles assumes ownership of “his” Limberlost swamp and declares himself to be the steward of the trees and creatures, just as I consider Percy Quin to be “my park” and the nature trail to be “my trail.”
I think this spirit of ownership by the public is not just a good thing — it is vital. For our natural areas to survive and thrive, individuals have got to step forward and declare that they are going to take on a stewardship role of their parks and forests. We cannot abdicate our role as caretakers of the environment just because someone else is paid by the state to keep up with that.
It seems a lot of my friends agree with me. Two months ago, on sort of a whim, I started a “Friends of Percy Quin State Park” Facebook group and posted a handful of beautiful photos I’d taken at Lake Tangipahoa. I left the group open to the public and suddenly people started joining in, posting photos and talking about all the things they love about “their” park.
Pretty soon, folks were discussing ways that we can volunteer to help out at “our” park.
So many people have fond memories of camping and fishing, hiking and golfing at Percy Quin, that at the time of this writing, the Facebook group has almost 800 members and is still growing!
The flood of volunteerism was a pleasant surprise to our new park manager, Joshua Hinton. He has worked with established Friends groups before and considers them a tremendous benefit to the park.
Hinton is so grateful for our Friends of Percy Quin group volunteering their help and having his back that he is working on establishing the Friends group as an official entity with more defined roles at “our” park.
In Stratton-Porter’s novel, Freckles comes upon a hill in his swamp where he is stunned by the majesty of the soaring trees and the beauty of the sun filtering down through the leaves. For Freckles, everything about the scene comes together to make this copse of trees his favorite place in the swamp. He is so awed by the natural beauty that he names this hilltop copse his “cathedral” in the woods.
I, too, have discovered my own natural cathedral at Percy Quin. I suspect everyone will have a different place that inspires awe in them, but for me it is a small group of magnolias growing in the shade of a pair of enormous upland pine trees about a mile in from the southern trailhead.
Magnolias are understory trees. They don’t mind growing in the shade of canopy trees, and they often grow short, bending in odd directions to reach the light coming through the canopy. These pines, however, are so stupendously tall that it has allowed the magnolias to grow straight upward and really large themselves.
Whenever I come walking southbound around the bend in the trail and the trees open up and I see the sunlight filtering through this dark green screen of impossibly tall magnolias, it always takes me by surprise.
When I am hiking on my trail in my park, I love to take a break in my cathedral.
Search on Facebook for “Friends of Percy Quin State Park” to see lots of beautiful photos of “our park,” or if you would like to occasionally volunteer to help out with “your park.”
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