Click photo for larger image. (Photo by Bailey Thomson)
E.O. Wilson, right,
and Jay Mengel on the Pascagoula River.
The Pascagoula River: Paradise in Peril
Part I: Behold a Natural River
By Bailey Thomson
Special to the Sun-Herald
Man and woman began in a garden watered by a mighty river, Genesis says.
But in post-industrial America, far removed from the world’s creation,
few of us know what a river is supposed to look and feel like.
In our time, rivers are highways for commerce, generators of electricity
or ditches for extracting and discharging water. Dams stop their current,
channels direct their flow, dredges deepen and widen their bottoms.
Scientists have confirmed the global extent of this violation.
In 1994, Swedish researchers Mats Dynesius and Christer Nilsson, writing
for the journal Science, reported that major dams had increased seven-fold
in the last generation to 39,000, inundating an area the size of California
and scattering local species. Pollution, logging and the invasion of non-native
plants and animals further diminish the rivers’ cleansing and life-renewing
In North America, large free-flowing rivers are now confined mostly to the
frigid north lands. Only a few unimpeded rivers persist in the lower 48 states.
The largest of these exceptions is Mississippi’s Pascagoula, which flows
for 81 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, beginning at the confluence of the Leaf
and Chickasawhay rivers near Merrill, a ghostly remnant of the timber rush
Whether by the design of preservation or the accident of geography, the
Pascagoula has almost all of its original elements – a condition that
allows it to maintain the equilibrium that nature intended. The river’s
basin drains a semi-wilderness, stretching over 9,600 square miles, where
black bears rob bees’ nests and swallow-tailed kites delicately snatch
insects from the tree tops.
As Stephen T. Ross, the noted fish expert at the University of Southern
Mississippi, likes to say, “You just can’t go anywhere and see
a river like this.”
The uninterrupted flow is important for migrating fish, such as the Alabama
shad and the endangered Gulf sturgeon, which Ross has studied for years. He
publicly opposed a plan to dam the Bouie River in the upper basin after he
and his student Todd Slack discovered that sturgeon were spawning there after
migrating up the Pascagoula.
At the invitation of the newspaper, I spent the summer studying the life
and times of this extraordinarily rich river system. I will share these experiences
over the next several days. But the story cannot end with the present for--like
a river--time and ambitions roll on, creating new complications. The Pascagoula
is probably the closest we have–at least in the lower 48 states–
to a natural paradise. Yet the river also faces the kinds of threats that
have doomed Edens elsewhere around the world.
Along the river’s southern route, for example, new subdivisions sprout
in wake of unprecedented population growth, even as many of the old heavy
industries such as the paper mill have departed. Sewage from septic tanks
and runoff from pavement can foul the river’s water. At the northern
end of the basin, meanwhile, urban sprawl dumps pollutants into feeder streams
that have been concreted and lined with rocks to speed their flow.
Perhaps most worrisome is that large timber companies are selling their
well-managed tracts to smaller holders and speculators. This “land rush,”
as developers call it, raises fears that new owners may clear cut timber to
the water’s edge, pouring tons of sediment into the basin's streams
and reversing decades of conservation.
Can the Pascagoula persevere as a natural treasure. while much of the globe
seems intent on forfeiting priceless biological diversity? Can the good luck
of geographical isolation be turned into a deliberate design to protect and
promote this watery wonderland?
Such questions drive my exploration. But to understand the river requires
that one first behold its presence. It must become more than an abstraction
on a map, a reference in a scientific article. Like our ancient ancestors,
we have to return to the natural world and see creation in its own terms.
Because only five bridges cross the river and vast swamps protect its secrets,
the Pascagoula is generally inaccessible except by boat. Thus exposure to
the river’s wildness and its deep natural history must begin on the
water itself – preferably in the company of sunburned naturalists.
What follows is one of many such trips for me on the Pascagoula. On this
particular day in late July, I am in the company of E.O. Wilson, Pellegrino
research professor emeritus at Harvard University. As
one of the world’s foremost biologists and winner of two Pulitzer prizes,
he has broadened understanding of the genetic roots of behavior–an inquiry
inspired by his study of ants. More recently, he has trumpeted the importance
of preserving the planet’s diversity of species against an unprecedented
wave of extinction at the hands of humans.
Wilson grew up nearby in Mobile in the early 1940s, riding his bicycle along
the causeway over the bay to look for insects, snakes and other creatures.
He is ready at 6 a.m. in his hometown when my daughter, Sarah, who is 19 and
a theater major at the University of Alabama, and I call for him at the Adams
An hour later, we meet our companions at Huck’s Cove, a restaurant
near the mouth of the Pascagoula’s western branch. Our guides are two
seasoned hands, Mark LaSalle and Jay Mengel, both steeped in the river’s
Mengel, a stocky redhead who answers to “Captain Jay,” has his
23-foot Caribiana Sea Skiff tied to the pier. After graduating with a biology
degree from Pennsylvania’s Lebanon Valley College in 1968, he flew for
the U.S. Air Force. Upon retirement from the service, he and his wife spent
two years cruising in a big boat before settling on the Pascagoula at Gautier.
He gives nature tours and is director of the Pascagoula River Alliance, which
formed two years ago to promote preservation within the basin.
LaSalle, a lanky Cajun with an irrepressible enthusiasm for nature, has
lived in the area since 1991, where he is a specialist with the Mississippi
State University Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi. Although
he does not like for people to address him with the title, he holds a doctorate
in biology from Mississippi State. Every year he trains a class of master
naturalists, many of them school teachers, by taking them into the field.
In particular, he wants people to grasp the importance of protecting entire
watersheds from pollution and other degradation.
Under power from a 90-horse Honda engine, Mengel’s white boat lifts
its bow over the waves as we head north into the salt marshes. Many of his
clients are bird-watchers attracted by the 327 species that live or pass through
the Pascagoula basin. After their long journeys, migrants replenish their
energy by eating nuts, berries, fruit and insects they find in the hardwood
Others visitors come to see some of the 17 endangered or threatened species
that find room to survive in the 50,000 acres of protected lands along the
free-flowing river. Among them are the bald eagle and the yellow-blotched
sawback turtle, which is found only in the Pascagoula or its tributaries.
As with other members of the genus , this turtle, typically about five inches
long, has been driven close to extinction from demand for it by collectors.
The area’s wildness causes Mengel to speculate that the French must
have seen a similar landscape when they arrived at the mouth of the Pascagoula
in 1669. “It’s a special river,” he says. “If everybody
who lived along the river felt the way I do, we wouldn’t have to worry.
But of course, they don’t.”
He does not wish to drive the remaining industries from the lower river
or prevent responsible companies from locating here. “There’s
got to be a balance,” he says. “People need jobs and the community
has to grow. We just have to do it the smart way.”
Yet he concedes that no one has figured out a sustainable mix of wild and
civilized habitats. His River Alliance, which represents conservation groups,
industries and governments across the basin’s 22 Mississippi counties,
struggles with the challenge.
A Natural Bounty
Naturalists can spend hours in small areas, and we stop frequently once
we reach the vast salt marshes just north of Interstate 10. High and low tides
alternate each day, raising and lowering the water about 18 inches. Only some
20 or so species of plants have adapted to withstand the saline conditions.
For example, the common black needle rush, known scientifically as Juncus
roemerianus, survives by diverting the salt into shoots that turn brown and
Here and there, blossoms salute the sun. Wild hibiscus is in bloom, its
white flowers resembling those of its domestic cousins. Morning glories abound,
as do marsh milkweed, a favorite food of monarch butterflies. Hemlock bushes
rise above the needle rush and the smooth cord grass, another common plant.
An eastern king bird, shouting “kdik, kdik, kdik,” watches us
from a small cypress tree that struggles to survive in the brackish water.
Along the water’s edge, wild rice flourishes as if in a well-tended
field. “That stand would be the envy of Iowa farmers,” Wilson
comments. Yes, but virtually impossible to harvest, Mengel replies. Every
year, the red-winged blackbirds strip the bounty before he can collect any
grain to sample. Of course, one could eat the tubers of the arrowhead, another
marsh plant, but what is edible is not always appetizing.
It took people a long time to understand the biological and economic value
of these marshes. Often, they wanted to fill or dredge them. Yet 85 percent
or more of the seafood we eat from the Gulf spends at least part of life in
such marshes. Young shrimp abound here, as do crabs and the game species of
fish that feed on them.
Before the French arrived, Indians came here from upriver to gorge themselves
on oysters and mussels, leaving mounds of shells call middens. You can find
these refuse dumps even now because calcium from the shells encourages certain
plants to grow, such as poison sumac, Mengel says.
The high bow of his boat, which is modeled after a seaworthy version that
native fishermen use in Trinidad to catch yellow-fin tuna, allows him to ram
into the thick vegetation for a closer look. Clapper rails, long-beaked wading
birds that are relatively rare elsewhere, protest the intrusion.
Wilson and LaSalle become absorbed with the insects they find. Scientific
names roll off the naturalists’ tongues as they find more species. Under
their gentle tutelage, Sarah loses her previous aversion to insects and examines
specimens under Wilson’s magnifying glass.
We are in an area thick with phragmites, a bushy reed reaching 12 feet in
height. Many naturalists consider the plant, known as the common reed, to
be a nuisance that is crowding out other species, but LaSalle says it is merely
recovering territory it lost around the last ice age. Wilson uses his pocketknife
to cut an eight-inch section of reed. He
blows on one end and points the other end into his cap. About 40 black bodies
pop out--carpenter ants.
He points out the larger ants to Sarah. Although females like the others,
they are called “soldiers.” They use their large round heads to
plug holes when water or unwanted guests threaten the colony. They also store
food in their abdomens to protect the colony from famine.
Immediately, the ants go to grabbing their tiny white young and rushing
to reorganize. Wilson dumps them from his cap back into reeds, where they
will rejoin their sisters and queen.
"Some of the happiest times of my life have been doing field work,"
he says. A tiny marsh wren flits among the reeds, nervously trilling for us
Dipping into the water with his net, LaSalle extracts a female wolf spider,
which normally prefers the land. A hairy brown creature about two inches long,
she is carrying babies on her back, and they will stay with her for another
week or so. Scientists just don’t know enough about such insects, LaSalle
laments, as he allows the spider to resume its business.
Under way again, we are following the annual migratory route of the sturgeon,
which come up the river’s western channel. Mullet jump in front of the
boat. Mengel slows down to show us an alligator's nest amid the reeds. Rotting
vegetation she has piled over the eggs will incubate them. Maybe we will see
the expectant mother on our way back.
Just before we leave the marshes, Mengel stops to show us great blue herons
nesting in some tall pines about a quarter of a mile away. Through the binoculars
I can make out their long, delicate necks.
Mengel keeps an eye on the rookery for the Mississippi Museum of Natural
Science. He became fascinated with such birds after hearing a lecture a few
years ago on the swallow-tailed kites. “It made the hair stand upon
the back of my neck," he remembers. "This is my river, I said to
The marsh gives way to swamps as we travel northward. Cypress, tupelo and
water oaks replace the marsh plants. Broad-leafed spadderdock floats on the
surface at the shore, showing off yellow blooms.
Bird life becomes more diverse. In the green canopy, a yellow-billed cuckoo
bounces around, looking for hairy caterpillars. An osprey glides overhead,
grasping a fish in its hawkish claws. It turns its prey headfirst to improve
flying speed. With wingspans that can reach five feet, ospreys are identifiable
by their white undersides. They build nests of sticks and twigs, often atop
Mengel says that DDT, a powerful pesticide used to kill mosquitoes and other
bugs, almost wiped out the osprey and the brown pelicans. But when the federal
government banned the poison in 1972, the birds made a comeback.
Turtles sun themselves on logs along the banks, splashing to safety as we
approach. We glimpse our first yellow-blotched sawback, a rare species found
only in the Pascagoula Basin. It is easy to distinguish from the more plentiful
cooter turtles from the ridges on its shell. Sarah helps spot them with the
binoculars as I keep my camera ready.
We enter the Pascagoula Wildlife Preserve, part of the protected lands that
stretch for 50 miles of frontage on both sides of the river. Gazing on the
undisturbed forest, Wilson notes the importance of allowing dead trees to
remain uncut and in place. Otherwise, he says, you just take out a big part
of the ecosystem’s regeneration. Many species of insects thrive in and
around the rotting wood, providing food for birds and other animals. Wood
ducks nest in holes high up the dead trunks.
Life and Death
About an hour later, we explore a sandbar where there are fresh signs of
a life and death struggle. Crouching over a trail several inches deep across
the white sand, LaSalle speculates that a large snapping turtle may have dragged
itself about 20 feet on to the beach, probably early that morning. There the
turtle deposited its eggs and covered them. A predator, perhaps waiting in
expectation of a meal, quickly uncovered the cache and left a mess of broken
Ants had moved in to scavenge. Stooping to examine them, Wilson recognizes
an imported fire ant but isn’t sure about the species. As a 13-year-old,
he found his first colony of red imported fire ants on an empty lot near his
home in Mobile. Now at 74, he appears to have lost none of his curiosity about
this genus Solenopsis.
"They are world champions at dispersing, even up and down rivers. So
why is it here?" he wonders.
In such fashion, he is smitten by the complexity of the Pascagoula’s
environment. “Everywhere you look every few minutes you see something
that seems completely new, at least for me,” he says, as we walk along
the hardwood bottoms that border the sandbar. “I might as well be in
the Amazon rain forest in what I see that I haven’t seen before.”
And as in the Amazon basin, these bottomlands, which flood regularly, are
critical for nature to work. In his books, Wilson has warned against indiscriminate
destruction of such habitats worldwide. Because of exploitation, species are
disappearing at a frightening rate, taking with them the diversity the planet
needs to sustain itself. Also lost are the many potential medical and economic
uses for such species. In his acclaimed book “The Diversity of Life,”
which he published in 1992, Wilson called for a environmental ethic that recognizes
mankind’s common destiny with the rest of creation.
Motioning toward the water, Wilson says, “As soon as you start messing
around with any of this – changing the river, allowing it to be polluted,
cutting too many of the trees, bringing in too much habitation close by, then
you start disturbing it in a serious way."
One creature that has survived with little change for at least 63 million
years, according to fossil records, is the gulf sturgeon. Biologists call
it an “anadromous” fish because it migrates from the oceans to
fresh water or marshes for spawning. Reaching seven feet or more from its
long snout to its swept-back tail, the sturgeon was fished almost to extinction
for its prized roe and meat. Today, the fish is protected under the federal
Endangered Species Act.
About 27 miles from the western Pascagoula’s mouth, where Black Creek
enters the river, the sturgeon stop for five to six months on the way back
from spawning in the Bouie River north of Hattiesburg. We stop along the bank
hoping to see a mighty sturgeon “sport” from the river’s
depths, giving us a rare show.
None of the fish takes the invitation, but Wilson is not disappointed. "It's
almost magical to think that these endangered animals, maybe only a few hundred
left, are as we speak concentrated right there in that spot," he says.
As if to compensate for the sturgeon’s no-show, a dozen or so swallow-tail
kites appear and perform aerial acrobatics, soaring on a wingspan of about
50 inches. Their forked tails, along with white heads and underbodies, distinguish
them from their hawk kin as they swoop down to drink.
As more birds join the act, Wilson grows excited and urges me to capture
the sight with my video camera. It
is as if, he says, the birds decided to put on a spectacle for the first-time
Only about 5,000 swallow-tailed kites remain in the Southeast. The birds
once ranged across 17 states but now are confined to a few large river systems
and coastal plains from Mississippi to Florida. Known as a “neo-tropical”
species, they migrate each year to Brazil, but they apparently do not interbreed
with the native swallow-tails there.
Back in Biloxi, Mark Woodrey, a researcher for Mississippi State University’s
Coastal Research and Extension Center, had told me that he and his colleagues
found a surprising number of swallow-tail kites on the Pascagoula when they
did an extensive survey a few years ago. On a given outing, they would often
see 40 or more birds.
Timber harvesting on private land pose the biggest threat to the swallow-tailed
kites’ survival here in the basin. On their trips, the surveyors found
eight nesting sites. Since then, the four nests that were on private land
have been destroyed.
“What seems to be happening is that people are clear cutting areas
or doing some sort of selective harvesting and taking out the larger trees,"
Woodrey explained in an interview. "Typically the kites nest in the larger
trees, and we don’t have a good handle on what sort of minimum forest
management we can do and still maintain kites in that area.”
Moving up the river, we see few signs of human life, aside from an occasional
houseboat or camp house. Before the state established its wildlife preserves,
such habitations were more common. Many people resented losing their weekend
getaways when they were told to clear off the newly acquired public lands
in the 1970s. But public ownership also has meant more places for people to
hunt and fish without belonging to expensive clubs. And kids have lots of
river to enjoy.
We pass boys who are climbing what appears to be a water oak. One
swings from a rope tied high in the tree and the other jumps from a wooden
platform. They splash into the water almost in unison, eliciting chuckles
from members of our admiring group who remember similar scenes from their
Having ascended more than 30 miles, we turn back to hit a few more spots
on the way home. Heavy rains have kept the bottomlands flooded, allowing us
to leave the river at one point and follow a stream’s route through
the foliage. We come upon water pecan trees mixed with cypress and then discover
an unexpected delight: an orchid grows upon an outstretched limb about eight
feet above the water. Examining its emerging seed pods, LaSalle announces
the plant is having its second bloom of the season.
"That would make a beautiful illustration for a botanical textbook,"
Indeed, my notebook bulges with the names of wild showoffs that thrive under
the trees' canopy. As we glide into Whiskey Bayou, a shortcut that leaves
the main channel, a profusion of flowering plants greet us, from the delicate
white swamp ti ti and pincushion-like buttonbush to the purple pickerelweed.
Mengel points to some marsh mallow, one of his favorites that in earlier times
yielded a confection.
Prothonotary warblers, with brilliant canary-yellow bodies and dark wings,
dart above us. Through the woods, I spot a shy pileated woodpecker in flight.
It likes to dine on the carpenter ants in finds by drilling into the dead
trees. A great egret rises from fishing along the shore and lumbers ahead
of us until it disappears over the cypress trees that tower from their buttress-like
trunks, which give them stability during floods. Although
we are near the marshes, the water is fresh and running at a depth of about
10 feet, covering the wooden knees that sprout around the cypress trunks.
Gazing from the boat, Wilson declares Whiskey Bayou to be “one of
the most beautiful habitats I have ever seen in my life.”
What did he mean by "beautiful?"
Its natural isolation, he replies. “This is a hidden treasure. There
is a sense of privacy of a kind that is very rare. The other thing that is
beautiful is the trees – the almost infinite variety of the shapes and
the multiple forms.”
Whiskey Bayou flows into Creole Bayou, and berms left on either side of
the entrance reveal that someone years ago dredged it out to allow boat traffic.
Such alterations are common in the lower part of the river. They remind us
that, beginning with the Europeans’ settlement, people came here not
to admire the natural beauty but rather to cut the thousand-year-old cypress
trees and harvest other natural resources.
With the afternoon sun now falling, Mengel heads south back to the marshes.
He slows as we pass the alligator’s nest we had observed on our way
up the river. A head and two eyes protrude above the tea-colored water near
the reeds, and I draw Sarah’s attention to a dark body shape that appears
to be around six feet in length.
We drift closer. Many
alligators inhabit the marshes, Mengel says, though the smaller and younger
females tend to be more fertile. He never encourages his guests to feed the
creatures. He wants their “flight distance” from the approaching
humans to be safely long enough to avoid trouble. But this female, while wary,
is reluctant to leave. We are almost alongside her with the boat before she
ducks and disappears.
River travel, while relatively easy now, still drains one’s energy,
particularly during in the full July heat. I am glad to see the pier at Huck’s
Cove, where friends are waiting for us, eager to hear how things went.
The restaurant is closed on this Monday; so we adjourn elsewhere for a Mexican
dinner. A couple of people who have joined us at the long table bring their
books for Wilson to sign. He inscribes a message with his autograph, then
adds a tiny drawing of an ant.
Later, I ask our distinguished guest from Harvard University for his thoughts
after his first trip on the Pascagoula.
The trip was one of the most memorable of his life, Wilson replies in his
customary well-crafted sentences.
“Partly because I was returning to an environment that was formative
for me as a young natural scientist. But mostly because I am old and experienced
enough now to see that we have preserved in that free running river and the
surrounding flood plain forests a stretch of primeval America as it must have
looked not only to the first European explorers but also the first native
There are precious few such examples of aquatic and land environments left
in the entire north temperate zone of the planet, he adds. For that reason,
the Pascagoula River has national, even global importance.
His comments made me wonder how many people speeding over the marshes in
their vehicles on I-10 or U.S. 90 recognize this treasure for what it is.
Will our generation and the succeeding ones show the wisdom to preserve it?
Or will the Pascagoula succumb, as have so many great river systems, to the
relentless pressures of development, already evident now along the coast and
the cities at the basin’s northern end such as Hattiesburg?
Is the paradise simply too good to last?