IT'S ONLY A TREE

by Whit Gibbons

June 4, 2017

Okefenokee Joe “left the city a long time ago” for reasons he doesn’t “need to disclose.” For 10 years he made his home in the Okefenokee Swamp, living his dream “the way a man oughta, happy with each day that goes by.”

He is a naturalist, an ardent environmentalist and very definitely swampwise. He is also a marvelous singer and storyteller. For a sampling of his songs, go to http://okefenokeejoe.com. The opening song, “Swampwise,” gives you a glimpse into this extraordinary man’s life.

Okefenokee Joe’s real name is Dick Flood, a noted singer and songwriter who left the Nashville music scene many years ago and took up residence on the Georgia side of the Okefenokee Swamp. He lived in the wilds with the plants and animals and learned what they had to tell him. He now has a house in the woods near Salley, where I have a cabin, and we enjoy having coffee on my porch overlooking a stream.

In one of his recent albums, Okefenokee Joe focuses on his appreciation of nature and the intertwining of animals, plants and the natural ecosystems they all depend on. One of my favorites is “It’s Only a Tree.” I like it not only because it is a melodious tune sung by a fine artist but also because it has an important environmental message.

The opening lines remind us that the natural world is linked together in ways that may not be obvious to humans – something we should all strive to remember. “It’s only a tree just one more tree, / Who cares if it lives or it dies? / It’s only a tree, what's one less tree / Who’d miss it? You’d be surprised.” Joe proceeds to answer the question of who would miss the tree by pointing out how one species’ dependency leads to the secondary dependency of another. Whitetail deer eat the leaves of purple flowers that grow in the tree’s shade, and Joe notes that if we “take away the tree, the flower grows no more / The deer must find another place to graze.”

My grandson Parker, who knows many of Joe’s songs, was at the cabin one day when Joe was visiting. They sang “Swampy the Dog” together, and then we talked awhile about deer and trees and streams and snakes. At Joe’s request, Parker went out in the canoe in hopes of catching a snake. He soon returned with a harmless green snake he found in a tree. “Its branches reach out to all those in need. / A spider spins its web.” Green snakes are climbers and eat spiders. Interconnectedness.

As I thought about the connections that create food webs throughout ecosystems, I recalled other lines from Joe’s tree song. “The otter eats the fish that ate the dancing fly / Born in the cocoon up in that tree.” We have otters and fish in our creek, and plenty of insects. The complexity of energy flow within natural ecosystems is remarkable – one species depends on another, which depends on another, and so on. We need to keep these natural systems intact and contaminant-free.

Some animals and plants are so rare or lead such clandestine lives that we may only experience them once in a lifetime, if that. Others are always present. Still others come and go with the seasons, reappearing on a regular basis. Some of the species in each category depend on trees for nesting or safety or food. The ebony jewelwing damselflies flit in the shade of trees in the swamp; bright yellow prothonotary warblers nest in tree holes along streams; and mistletoe, sporting berries that cedar waxwings eat, grows on trees big and small. We are fortunate to have all of those along our tree-lined stream.

Okefenokee Joe uses his songs and stories to help spread his environmental message, a message that should be heeded by anyone who appreciates the intricacies of nature – which should be all of us. “Life is intertwined, and somewhere down the line / Somehow we’re all connected to that tree.”

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