Part of our punishment
When Greg Guirard visited from Louisiana, he insisted on doing a chore before he ate a meal. Never mind he’d driven eight hours to get here. One visit, he cleared privet from the edge of the woods along my drive. Another time, he sanded a cypress board he’d salvaged from the swamp bottom and brought as a gift. Once, he arrived with a small live oak tree from his land on the western edge of the Atchafalaya Basin in St. Martin Parish. He planted it in my North Mississippi yard. I’d never seen a live oak this far north, and I said I suspected it wouldn’t survive the harsh winters. Conventional wisdom has the Live Oak Line about five hours south. “Maybe nobody’s ever tried,” Greg said. The tree has made it eight years, and is over 4 feet tall. When he died of meningitis last week, it was as if a giant tree fell. Plenty heard. Greg was tall, ruggedly handsome, soft-spoken and kind. Think Kris Kristofferson meets James Arness. Everyone fell in love with Greg at first meeting. No exceptions. Men, women, small children. He was mesmerizing, a voracious reader, a Solomon of the Swamp. At age 80, he was still outdoors every day -- crawfishing, salvaging ancient cypress sinker logs, taking photographs, giving free tours to anyone who showed a sincere interest in trying to preserve a disappearing way of swamp life. He planted thousands of trees in a quixotic quest to replace the billions of board feet taken from the Basin between 1875 and 1930. Greg knew poets, movie stars, musicians, the documentarian Ken Burns. But his best friends were Roy and Annie Blanchard, who fished as a couple for decades, and Cara and Dean Wilson of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, an activist environmental group. Greg was doting godfather to their son, Aramis. Greg was 2 when he moved with his family to the bosky bayou land. He sometimes would leave -- mostly in August, when the repressive heat made travel attractive -- but the Atchafalaya remained his home. He moved to Costa Rica once, not coincidentally the year Richard Nixon was elected, and taught English for several years. He loved Faulkner and Thoreau. Greg helped Hollywood find locations in the labyrinth of swamp. For Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle,” Greg’s job was to scare away snakes before the baptism scenes. He often got speaking parts, including “In the Electric Mist,” with Tommy Lee Jones. “In the credits they call me ‘Old Cajun Fisherman,‘” Greg said with a laugh. “I’m about the same age as Tommy Lee Jones. They didn’t call him ‘Old Tommy Lee Jones.‘” Greg built his own cypress cabin. Beyond it is the house of his late parents, and, beyond that, his grandparents’ home. It is a timeline of domiciles, vine-covered, slowly going back to earth. Boats are everywhere -- houseboats, pirogues, crawfishing rigs -- and outboards hang from oak boughs. Cypress logs and boards are stacked in countless piles and barns, each piece of wood a prize. Anywhere else, you might say it was a mess, but in this setting it is perfect, meaningful. “Once we have cut down all the big trees, part of our punishment will be to live in a world without any big trees,” Greg wrote in one of his many books, “Inherit the Atchafalaya.” And it feels like punishment to live in a world without Greg. Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s most recent book is “Hank Hung the Moon ... And Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts.” Comments are welcomed at email@example.com.