‘Alligator mississippiensis’ and my reptilian brain

When I encountered our fiftieth alligator (give or take) my own reptilian brain woke up with a start.

It was three days ago, when Nat and I were kayaking Bayou LaBranch in golden late-afternoon sunshine.  The surrounding cypress trees had greened up nicely and were hung with silvery Spanish moss. Back-lit by the sinking sun, the trees were luminous—as were the palmetto and wild irises blooming along the banks. You’d never guess we were a half-hour’s drive west-northwest from downtown New Orleans, on a waterway about a mile from a huge petroleum refinery, traversing the dwindling swamplands between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. Where we were felt more like my fantasy of the Amazon.

We’d passed a few fisherman early on, but otherwise had this blissfully quiet, silty backwater all to ourselves—except for the extraordinary amount of life just below the surface.  Fish were jumping and making frantic ripples on the surface as they skittered away from us. The eyes and head of an occasional gator rose up from the murky waters to see what we were up to, and then sank out of sight. We were used to that.

We also were used to seeing gators sunning themselves on the banks—absolutely motionless. Their stillness was eerie, as if they were feigning death, or enlightenment (that sly, knowing smile…), or living somehow in geologic time—though we had witnessed a couple of seemingly comatose gators lurch with lightning quickness to snap up a passing snack. That was a little unnerving.

The half-dozen seasoned swamp paddlers we had spoken to assured us that gators rarely hurt humans. Still, there is that Wikipedia article: alligators have the “strongest laboratory bite of any living animal.” Males can grow to 15 feet and more than 1,000 pounds. Females defend their nests, aggressively. And then the kicker, “the alligator tail is a formidable weapon that can easily take a person down and break their bones.”

I was sidling up to the bank to take a picture of a plant growing from a dead cypress knee. Throughout the Mississippi Delta cypress are dying from salt-water intrusion caused by various human endeavors, including a rising sea level exacerbated by climate change, lack of sedimentation due to the extensive levee system, and the mazes of channels built for servicing oil and natural gas rigs (for more on cypress, see the earlier post, Beneath the Cypress Dome).

The back-lit leaves of a plant taking root in the knee of a dead tree that would have been capable of living for 1,000 years got my interest. In the moment, I forgot some good advice about paddling in gator country given by one of the seasoned paddlers we’d spoken to: approach the bank straight on rather than sideways.

When I was about a foot away from the muddy bank, something beneath my kayak surged to life. I never actually saw it, but as the gator scrambled to get away from me it gave the hull of my boat a good whack with its formidable weapon of a tale. My left hand was inches away from that all-powerful bite. Suppressing the urge to take flight, I took my picture and continued on down the bayou, heady with adrenaline, my heart racing, and more fully awake than I’d been in some time.

I first heard the term “reptilian brain” from Robert Kennedy Jr.—a term he used to characterize humanity’s baser instincts.  He said civilization’s quest is to elevate us above short-sighted survival instincts—evolutionary holdovers—that direct us to fight or flight, and incline us to thoughtlessly spoil our own nests in the interest of narrow, short-term interests. He was speaking about the kind of thinking, and related bahavior, that took the alligator nearly to the brink of extinction in the 1960s due to overhunting and loss of habitat—the wetlands they call home. Despite the continued decline of southern wetlands, gators have made a comeback, and, like the brown pelican, Alligator mississippiensis is another species-recovery success story.

When I finish this post I’ll be getting ready for tomorrow’s paddle into Devil’s Swamp near the Pearl River along the Louisiana-Mississippi border. It’s reputedly one of the best remaining places to see what the Delta’s legendary swamps looked like not so long ago—a home of giant old tupelo trees and cypress and, I suppose, a good number of gators. I’ll be keeping my eyes open and doing my best to keep my wits about me.

That’s a story for another day. Meanwhile, here’s a video Nat and I posted earlier about an alligator hunt we undertook at the start of our adventure—before we had actually met any. Werner Herzog narrates:

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2 Responses to ‘Alligator mississippiensis’ and my reptilian brain

  1. Jeremy Zilar says:

    I love the narration by Werner Herzog touch.

    • John Shepard says:

      Thanks, Jeremy. I’m also glad you include the link to silencematters in your signature. First, silence does matter in this noisy world. Also, It looks interesting—I like Paul Krugman’s comments about brevity.

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