On A Tour Of 'America's Amazon,' Flora, Fauna And Glimpses Of Alabama's Past A trip through the Mobile-Tensaw Delta offers a little bit of everything, from iris fields and gators, to Civil War history and the wreck of the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to America.
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On A Tour Of 'America's Amazon,' Flora, Fauna And Glimpses Of Alabama's Past

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

A new book features the remarkable array of flora and fauna and history found in a vast river delta on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Think pitcher plant bogs, purple iris fields, colorful dart fish and tiny seahorses. The book is called "Saving America's Amazon" by writer and photographer Ben Raines. He's our tour guide and boat captain today.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT MOTOR)

BEN RAINES: Coming out in a boat in the delta, you may as well be in the Amazon. And it's just so seductive.

ELLIOTT: Raines launches his fishing boat into Mobile Bay, the city's skyline visible in the distance.

RAINES: You know, right on the doorstep of this big American city, we have one of the largest intact wilderness areas in the country - certainly one of the largest wetland wilderness areas. You know, we're at the bottom right now of hundreds of thousands of acres of swamp. And it's really easy to get lost in there, even with GPS, which is always fun to see.

ELLIOTT: Well, please don't get us lost.

RAINES: Yeah. Well, hopefully I won't, but sometimes you find the best stuff getting lost.

ELLIOTT: We're at the top of Mobile Bay, where a confluence of freshwater rivers flow into the salt marsh and eventually drain into the Gulf of Mexico. It's the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Raines navigates upriver.

RAINES: We're in the most diverse river system in North America. There are more species of fish, turtles, snails, salamanders, crawfish and mussels here than any other river system in America.

ELLIOTT: The Nature Conservancy has ranked Alabama No. 5 in the U.S. for biodiversity, putting a relatively small state in competition with the likes of California, Texas and Florida. Yet Raines says the Mobile Delta gets little recognition, with Alabama much more famous for its fraught racial history and football prowess than its natural wonders.

RAINES: And part of the reason it escaped notice is 'cause it was in Alabama. You know, we have this long history. We have this incredible natural place with all these species, and it's escaped destruction largely through benign neglect.

ELLIOTT: Raines' book notes how pressure is mounting - pollution from industry on the banks, more people moving to the coast and the rivers dammed upstream.

RAINES: All right. We're going to run up, and then we'll tuck up into the swamp.

ELLIOTT: Raines' boat, the Auriculatus, is named for an extinct giant shark whose teeth he finds in the region. We pass the remains of a military battery, first built by the Spanish trying to keep the French at bay, that was later occupied by the Confederates during the Civil War.

RAINES: They dug a trench on the other side to pull barges in back in the Civil War era, and all the dirt - they made that hill to put the cannons on top of so they could shoot that little bit further. So we're going to run up this shoreline, and it's a good place to see alligators if there are any out and about.

ELLIOTT: We do see an alligator sunning on a riverbank and shards of Native American pottery. As we move further upriver, the landscape shifts from seagrasses lining wide-open water to more narrow swamps and bayous with huge cypress trees on the shoreline.

RAINES: See how black the water is. This is a classic blackwater stream.

ELLIOTT: He stops at a bend in the waterway. It's like stepping back in time. Raines says it's likely been similar to this since the Ice Age.

RAINES: And really, that's the secret of Alabama's diversity. The reason we have all these creatures is because Alabama never froze. And so everything that ever evolved here is essentially still here.

ELLIOTT: One of the things you talk about in your book is the need to save the edges. What do you mean by that?

RAINES: So the edges are where the land and the water interface. And, you know, that's always the hot zone in biological terms, where aquatic creatures and land creatures - terrestrial creatures interact, where the water and the land interact. But that's also where people want to be. You know, we want to live on the edge of the rivers. We want to live on the edge of the wetlands and all that. And so that zone, that edge is where all the biological activity happens. And if we don't protect it, if we build on top of it and live on top of it or destroy it through logging or what have you, we lose that.

ELLIOTT: Would you mind reading a section of the opening of the book for us?

RAINES: I would love to. I'll start with this section right here. (Reading) In some measure, Alabama's natural heritage has been obscured by a century's worth of bad press that frame the state in terms of what we've done to it and in it rather than what has always been present in the landscape beneath our feet. Civil rights protests, steel mills, cotton fields and football - that's the Alabama living in the mind of the public. But there's another Alabama - a wild Alabama that ranks among our country's rarest and most precious assets.

ELLIOTT: Efforts to establish a Mobile Delta national park have fallen short, even with support from noted Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, an Alabama native.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT MOTOR)

ELLIOTT: We leave the peaceful blackwater bayou and head back into the Mobile River, taking stock of the wildlife.

So we've seen an alligator, a spider. We've caught a minnow.

RAINES: We've seen a lot of birds. We saw a bunch of ibis and egrets and blue herons. I saw a kestrel. We saw the white pelicans. I've seen a couple of kinglets - little bitty birds. I heard several kingfishers, and we heard a big pileated woodpecker.

ELLIOTT: A former environmental reporter and photographer for the local newspaper and a filmmaker, Raines has spent 20 years documenting the Mobile Delta. But his most significant discovery came two years ago at a spot on the Mobile River called 12 Mile Island.

RAINES: This is where the wreck of the last ship to bring enslaved Africans to America was found, and I actually found it right here behind us.

ELLIOTT: Raines beaches the boat in tall seagrass across the river.

RAINES: The ship is over on that shoreline with all the cypress trees. There's a drop-off about 10 feet off the bank or so where the water drops from, say, chest-high down to about 20 feet deep. The ship is about 20 feet deep. It's cockeyed in the mud. You can follow its outline around the edge and feel the ship shape of it.

ELLIOTT: It's the Clotilda, long rumored to exist, a ghost that haunted both descendants of the enslaved and the family of the man that brought them here around 1860 on a bet.

RAINES: A wealthy plantation owner and steamboat captain named Timothy Meaher bet that he could smuggle a bunch of slaves into the country, which was illegal and had been for 50 years. You could still have slaves, but you couldn't bring in Africans.

ELLIOTT: On the eve of the Civil War, Meaher's ship, the Clotilda, returned from West Africa with 110 captives.

RAINES: So they snuck in through the swamp. Instead of coming through the port of Mobile, they came in through this network of rivers around us. They sailed up here to this spot.

ELLIOTT: The captives were hidden in the swamp thicket.

RAINES: After they got all the slaves off the boat, they lit it on fire and sank it to hide evidence of the crime. And this is where it happened.

ELLIOTT: So what is the significance of the Clotilda being found here in the Mobile Delta?

RAINES: Well, this is such a haunted place. You look around and, you know, the leaves are down off the trees right now, so you see these stark cypress trunks with Spanish moss hanging off them. They look very ghostly. We're in a very desolate place. There's nothing around. You know, the reason the ship is here is because they wanted to hide it, and they wanted no one to know what they had done and where they had done it.

ELLIOTT: Well, Ben Raines, author of "Saving America's Amazon," thanks for talking with us.

RAINES: Thank you so much for coming out with me. I always love having you on the boat, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: "Saving America's Amazon" comes out December 15. Ben Raines is currently working on a book about the Clotilda's voyage.

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