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A Field Guide to the Ass-End of Hell

May 1, 2014 | by

On reading Peter Matthiessen in the Everglades.

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I first encountered Peter Matthiessen in a hurricane, with the roof-flown certainty that we’d never meet again. Just passing through, the memory blurs at 135 mph. I was in the Bahamas reading Killing Mister Watson, sweating out a Category 4, trying to concern myself with an Everglades outlaw who produced excellent cane syrup and, in the wake of his murder, a bunch of conflicting yarn-burners. I only made it through the beginning, apparently no further than E. J. Watson himself, ventilated by thirty-three neighborly slugs upon stepping off his boat and into his own lore. This just after the hurricane of 1910 had wasted Chokoloskee. Announced by a comet, the storm upchucked the marl, catapulted Watson’s infant son through the mangroves, and, as Matthiessen had it, “blew the color right out of the world.”

My hurricane merely blew the color out of the TV. With an earful of low-pressure williwaw, I had problems getting all those Watson thoughts inside my head, preparing to duck shard as the windows bowed, wondering if the author’s next word would be my last. Kind of a morbid, if not meteorologic, approach to one’s literature, imagining the final line that accompanies you and your velocity into the whateverafter, joining LeQuinn Bass (last words: “Well, shit”), the Owl Man of Deep Wood (“Finish it”), Belle Starr (a screech—she was shot in the back, off her horse), and whomever else Bloody Watson managed to ether before it was all said and blown away. The last thing you’d want to read should be the first. Maybe something poignant about nature’s collaborative disregard for epitaph and perpetuity: bloodless fungi and blind algae that worked with the wind and rain to obliterate man’s scratchings. Or more to the point: Folks have had enough of your ratfuck family. There was an excess of fine choices and the wind sounded like it wanted them all, so I gave up. I watched Victor Victoria until the power went out, right when James Garner was spying on Julie Andrews in the tub. Then darkness. Then back under a feedstore in Chokoloskee, hiding in the stink-rot of the postman’s drowned chickens.

Located at Chatham Bend, Smallwood’s feedstore now serves as a Watsonian institute and occasional destination for ghost busters. Though Watson has yet to be implicated in the strange orange cloud seen hovering over the parking lot by a team of paranormal investigators from Missouri, the site holds the warrant for his arrest in Oklahoma in 1889. There’s also a chart mapping out the murders Watson may or may not have committed, and a box of corrupted shells that Watson may or may not have loaded into his shotgun during his last moments. The handwritten inscription beneath the photo of the Watson house says, “Rangers burned it.” With their livelihoods endangered by a bunch of no-account cypress huggers, locals may have hated the federal government and its National Park claims more than they feared EJW.

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Photo: Dave Tompkins

Last May, I caught a ride with a pair of archaeologists to Ten Thousand Islands, in the southwest Everglades, to see how Watson it really was down there. My copy of Killing Mister Watson had been rendered inoperable by Hurricane Ike, but I had since vanished into Matthiessen’s Shadow Country and its nine hundred pages of beautifully rendered Audubonic bird riffs, free of my personal weather hysterics, save for some in-flight turbulence during the part where Watson’s second born decapitates his old man’s buried corpse, not without exertion. At times, it reads like a Petersen’s Guide to Dirty Deeds in the Everglades, with special attention to fouling the air. Such evocations of nature and blasphemy to the nose make me wish the ghost of this ex-CIA naturalist would transcribe the bog-burp scene from The Dark Crystal. Or the fish-gut documentary Leviathan, which offers a drowning man’s POV of gulls in the sky. Stenches carry.

We took the Tamiami Trail to Everglades City, as did Lucius Watson, when driving down to sort out his father’s legend among suspects, back when the road was just a limestone sketch of puddles and potholes. This included  twenty or so farmers and fisherman who’d been deputized by the sheriff to arrest the man they’d already shot to pieces. Matthiessen checked off a similar posse list (or cousin thereof) for his own research. Lucius would end up tossing his unfinished Watson manuscript into the fire, a scene that appears in the middle of a rewritten manuscript that earned Matthiessen the National Book Award. Just another tangle with history and myth in the Everglades, swapping muckspit and twang vector. But be careful what you dredge for. In her book Swamplife, anthropologist Laura Ogden describes the Everglades as a rhizome, “entanglements of people, memory and nature on the move,” for the shifty and shiftless, as well as those who engaged in their own conquest of the useless, trying to scare up harvest from soil entombed with ancient dead marine matter, ossified Calusa, and the slain black workers who originally pickaxed the shell and chopped cane on Watson’s property. Offing employees kept costs down.

Then working in cultural resources for the National Parks, my friends were going to Chokoloskee to investigate a shell mound in an artifacts site possibly linked to the Calusa or Miccosukee. Watson provided atmosphere. Along the way, talk migrated from the bass line in Ice T’s “Colors” to Chief Billy’s missing finger—Chief Billy, the ex-Vietnam helicopter pilot who lost his middle flipper to an alligator and told dirty jokes about it while flying one of the archaeologists to see prehistoric canoes. The other archaeologist had recently boated Miss Florida through the Everglades and learned her father was a swamp hydrologist and that Miss Florida was actually Miss Queen of the Coast. Conversation down there often invents new ways to arrive at drainage and gators.

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Photo: Christy Gast

The shell-mound hopping commenced in a shallow-water flats boat, with a face full of wind, free of mosquito clouds and bales of weed dropping from the sky. Not a galoot in clear blue sight, just landscape on the creep, as if the mangrove were going to up and take the islands with them. Early Florida naturalist William Bartram would’ve called this “enlivening the delusion.” Through the engine roar and jacket flap, one of the archaeologists mentioned a man in Everglades City going on YouTube and saying his wife had “gone missing.” The ranger then yanked the wheel into a starboard dip, giving the boat a sudden DEA lean before joyriding into wave donuts. But it was the birds that were clearly having the most fun. Squadrons of swallow-tailed kites skimmed the water, racing parallel with us, then breaking sharply toward another estuary, another Watson haunt, no beak or bird feet, just wing and tail in sharp resonance, cutting headless shadows into sky paper. Then hurricane-defiant ibis, snake-necked anhingas, and pelican bug shovels. (Half expected to see the Chuck-will’s-widow metaphor that preceded the first bullet into Watson.) Then egrets, their legend migrating up to Florida on a Bahamian ghost tale: man marries witch and witch transforms into egret, chanting Kyee bottom-bottom. But hunters just wanted these birds for their plumes. Matthiessen’s depiction of blasted egret rookeries: the silence that returns after all the shooting, but in the dream of yet another Watson triggerman, “ghosty trees on dead white guano ground,” heaps of skinned carcasses left behind. The vultures can’t keep up, “so stuffed and stupid they can’t hardly fly.”

We pass Chevelier Bay, named after the French rare-egg collector who took a more humane approach to his pluming and “scraped acquaintance with every field of knowledge … except how to get on with other human beings.” (Watson shoots the felt hat off Chevelier’s head, thirty pages in.) After a brief archaeo-CSI analysis of a rectangular plot of mud (Ranger: “It’s so nerdy to dig in the dirt and blau! just know things!”), my friend suggests we head over to Watson’s, as if Watson still existed. As if he didn’t. En route, the engine is killed so we can just float and admire a cow-faced ray and then a bull shark. Someone makes a crack about seeing the Tucker kid in the shallows, killed by Watson’s son and left for the gators, happy to tamper with the evidence. More kites blow past, this time in the opposite direction, away from the forty-acre shell mound once referred to as the “ass-end of hell.” Watson’s Place. A sky-blue Port-a-Jon sits on the dock, to the right of a historical marker. Still no mosquitoes. Where are all the mosquitoes?

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The cistern. Photo: Christy Gast

One of Watson’s original gumbo limbo trees (Bursera simaruba) has managed to endure over a century of Floridian storm bluster. Nothing remains of the house, save for a few foundational pilings, two cisterns, and the cast-iron vat for boiling Island Pride syrup. Empty houses often retreat back into the woods in Shadow Country. When a teenage Watson dares to glance back at the Owl Man’s charred mansion in Edgefield, Georgia, the house (called Deep Wood) “withdrew like a wounded creature behind the climbing shrouds of vine and creeper.”

The Owl Man was family, one of the few positive, not to mention literate, influences in Watson’s life. A confederate war hero with “commendable wounds,” Watson’s cousin Selden Tilden had been tarred, feathered, scalped, and deposited in a hog wallow for abolitionist views that mocked the Regulators. Then things go Ambrose Bierce. Watson thinks he sees the banished Owl Man on the roof at Deep Wood, crouched between dormer and bee’s nest. He considers consulting his own pigs, transplanting the apparition into bacon consciousness: “What could hallucination mean to young pigs starved for slop?” Good question. (To which Kenneth Patchen might’ve retorted, “In a pig’s sun porch!”)

Distracted by the idea of pigs tripping on Owl Man stealing Watson’s dead rabbit, I almost lose my place—now standing at Bloody Watson’s cistern, gauging the snake-nip index. Composed of tabby and crushed shells, this is where marooned diamondbacks whispered off to after the hurricane, eyeing Watson as he entered his house for the last time, his psychopathic rapist foreman Leslie Cox brooding in the dark, drunk on hooch, reeking from murdering the rest of the household while Miccosukee tribesmen stood quietly in the mangroves, waiting to haul this evil shithead away. The author does humanity a solid by leaving Cox’s hard-earned demise to the imagination. Race hatred is twisted into a sneer, “the way a cat twists out a crap, leaving that nasty little point at the back end.”

Whatever happened here, one thing is certain: the mosquitoes want me off the island. I’m covered—all up in my face, eyes, nose, ears. The archaeologist chuckles, cracking her mouth just enough to mutter, “This is just light bug.” Brack stagnant, the cisterns provide optimal breeding pools. Some say this is Watson’s way of continuing to extract blood from Chatham Bay, another drainage scheme from one of Florida’s most notorious invasive species: a fire-headed drunk in a linen suit who could shoot your mustache off. Now, heavy bug.

Dave Tompkins is writing a book on the natural history of subwoofer bass ecosystems in Miami. His first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach, was published in 2010.

Special thanks to M. Memory (archaeologist) and C. Gast (constructed a full-scale fabric replica of the Nike Hercules missile, based in the Everglades). The trip wouldn’t have been possible without them.

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