He was fighting to save the trees with the only weapon he had, a guitar. The Traveler’s Story.
June 23, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Sights: Most of the 501,000 acres are covered with longleaf, slash, and loblolly pines, but great hardwoods shelter the thick underbelly of the bottomlands. It is a haven for hunters and fishermen, and those streams constantly beckon canoes, rafts, and john boats. Black Creek is a National Wild and Scenic River, and the forest contains the Black Creek and Leaf River Wilderness areas.
The Setting: So much of the beautiful woodlands could have been lost if a wandering hometown troubadour had not out-dueled a bunch of government chainsaws with his guitar. What he sang when the Forest Service began killing trees weren’t love songs, and the people of Mississippi revolted.
The Story: It was the early 1960s, and Paul Ott waited nervously just outside the eye of a television camera while fast-talking Papa Red McCafferty fumbled with a loaf of good fresh bread, dropped it, picked it up again, and tried to sell it over the airwaves of the only television station in Hattiesburg. Papa Red’s Showtime was early entertainment on the Sabbath, and Papa Red could sell you a bill of goods and pray for God to bless you in the same breath. He was, however, more interested in you, rather than God, listening to him. You could send him check, cash, or money order. He would patch it up with God later, provided God had paid any attention to him the first time.
Nobody in town ever admitted to watching the show. It was little more than a homespun, redneck amateur hour for anyone who could pick and sing, preferably at the same time, even though voice and guitar might be running off with different melodies, and they almost always were. Everybody said they didn’t watch the show, but they were lying because Papa Red was selling an awful lot of groceries down at the grocery store, and he was just about the only sure-enough celebrity in Hattiesburg. He kissed babies, hugged mamas, shook hands without everyone he met on a street corner and wasn’t running for any public office. Papa Red was just peddling bread.
Paul Ott was Papa Red’s main man, not much more than a shy old country boy who would have never shuffled his way before the camera if he had any idea at all that anybody was out there actually watching him. He didn’t like crowds, but they were all right as long as he didn’t have to look out and see them. Paul Ott was also just about the only performer who had sung on key in five years of Showtime, and when his voice broke just right on a ballad, he could make grown women cry and sometimes fall in love and almost always with him.
Papa Red, grinning like a possum eating a green persimmon, would dramatically draw a couple’s name from his special box, dedicate the final song of the program to the woman, and motion for Paul Ott to make his way back to the microphone.
“We ain’t got much time, boy,” he would say. “You might as well start on the last verse and cut the chorus to one hallelujah and maybe an amen, then get on out of here.”
Ott would nod. He just sang when Papa Red said sing and shut up when he was through, and sometimes he made five dollars and mostly he didn’t.
Late one afternoon, as the sun hung on to the branches of a sickly oak tree, Ott ambled with an old Choctaw friend into the bosom of the Desoto National Forest where he had not been in a long time. It was a place that captivated him as a child, a woodland where he had stalked wildlife and always found plenty of it. But the forest was dying, and Ott was puzzled. He remembered the woodland as strong and vibrant, but that was when the birds were singing and the deer were running.
A deathly silence.
The birds and the deer were gone, and the trees had a death rattle when the wind blew gently through parched and wasted branches. Leaves had grown brown and brittle. Ott paused to stare at the fading yellow ribbon that bit into the bark of the hardwoods. “What’s this?” he asked his Choctaw friend.
“The tree’s marked for death.”
Paul Ott felt a heated anger slowly replace his bewilderment. “Who did it?” he snapped, and he didn’t like the answer the Choctaw gave him.
“The U. S. Forest Service.”
Pines grew up quickly and could be harvested. The hardwoods simply got in their way. So the U. S. Forest Service people had come out with a machine and injected the trees with poison. Within a few days, the hardwoods would just wither away, fall over, and turn an ashen gray.
“But they’re destroying food for the animals,” Ott said with frustration. He looked at the ground around him. “The acorns are all gone.”
The old Choctaw nodded. “For some,” he said sadly, “money is more important than the animals.”
All over South Mississippi, the bewildered and the frightened and the angry had written to senators, congressmen, and legislators, held town meetings, made promises and made threats. And the hardwoods? They kept right on dying. Everything that could be done had been done, the old Choctaw said.
For days, Paul Ott prowled the timberlands with a borrowed 35mm camera. He shot pictures of trees alive, trees marked with yellow ribbons, trees withering and dead. One night he sat down and wrote a poignant love ballad called: “The Trees Are Gone.” Then he gathered up the colored slides and his hand-scrawled words, and Paul Ott sauntered back to Papa Red McCafferty‘s Showtime on an early Sabbath morning. Papa Red was expecting another one of those old-time, old-fashioned, country songs about love found, love lost, love abandoned, love squandered, or mama. He certainly did not expect one of those fighting songs, and this one made all of Mississippi mad and ready to take up arms against any interloper who had the audacity to ruin their land. Nobody ever admitted to watching Showtime, of course, but everybody was appalled at the pictures they saw and the ballad they heard about a young man’s love for the forest.
And when Paul Ott’s voice broke just right, the grown men cursed, and the grown women cried, and they rang the phone down at the U. S. Forest Service’s regional office almost off the wall. Whenever they got a busy signal, which was often when an employee of the government suddenly tried to drop off the face of the earth and go immediately into code busy, they called up a state legislator and chewed him out.
“I had nothing to do with the it,” the legislator said.
“I voted for you.”
“I won’t ever do it again.”
“It’s not my fault.”
A dead phone is a terribly silent thing.
All of Mississippi was outraged, and the Forest Service shuddered because it needed goodwill and could not find any anywhere. It was hard to smile in the shadow of knotted noose. There’s no mob worse than the one after you. A representative called Paul Ott. “You’ve done us a great disservice,” he said. “You made us look terrible.”
“You’ve done a terrible thing.”
“What can we do?”
Paul Ott marched the government representative out into the woodlands and paused beneath a great oak, the one the old Choctaw had always referred to as the granddaddy of the forest. “If you kill this tree,” Ott said, “the war is on, and it might never end.”
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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