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A Trip Back in Time: A Review of Bob Keefe's "Stories From the Okefenokee"

Posted: Aug 16, 2013

In 1969 a young Marine returning to civilian life after a tour of duty as a helicopter pilot in Viet Nam found refuge in a remote and primal place in the Deep South, the Okefenokee Swamp. The Marine's name was Bob Keefe, and he spent five wonderful years in the swamp, working as a forester and beginning the long, slow process of healing the wounds of war. "Stories From the Okefenokee" (2010) is his story, begun when he left the swamp and published 40 years later from a memory as vivid and enduring as the land itself. All the stories are true and none of the names have been changed.

According to Keefe, the Okefenokee Swamp, which covers 438,000 acres in southeast Georgia including 25,000 acres of islands and 60 named lakes, is a "wonderful mosiac," a "veritable treasure trove of life." It is a land all but forgotten by time where life is reduced to its basics and people and even animals struggle to survive.

This enchanting collection of stories subtitled "An Anthology of Rural Life in the South Georgia Swamps and Flatwoods in the 1960s and 70s" is Bob Keefe's thank you gift to the people who lived on the edge of the Great Swamp for the "kindness and hospitality" they showed him during the years he lived and worked among them. Keefe writes that his book is a "glimpse back in time," a snapshot of a unique way of life that was beginning to change even as he lived there and which may no longer exist.

Henry David Thoreau said he went to the woods because he wished to "live deliberately." He wrote Chapter Two of Walden: "I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close." Bob Keefe went to the Great Swamp for much the same reasons, to sort out his life and attempt to make sense of it once again..

Keefe's lively tales about life in the Okefenokee provide the reader with an intimate and fascinating excursion into a strange and often savage land where the inhabitants "generally lived outside of the normal societal and legal restraints that were found in mainstream cultures." These hardy and enterprising people lived off the harsh and unforgiving land, eking out a living by hunting, fishing, gathering, and trapping, as well as keeping bees and ranging hogs and cattle through the piney woods. Despite the fact that violence and lawlessness were common, Keefe observes that " civility, hospitality, honesty, and loyalty were genuine hallmarks of these swamp people."

In addition to being delightfully entertaining, Keefe's book is also an encyclopedia of information about the Great Swamp, rich in details of history and geography and illustrated with the author's drawings, photographs, woodcuts, and watercolors.. The thirty page appendix reads like an Audubon field guide to the Okefenokee, providing minute details of the flora and fauna in a land about which little is known. The stories themselves comprise a botanical, biological, and cultural compendium of this rare and wonderful place, this "land of the trembling earth."

The reader looking to learn more about wildlife in the Okefenokee will find no shortage of critters in Keefe's swamp stories. Among the swamp critters Keefe describes, there are at least three species of rattlesnakes, alligators, bears, wild hogs, otters, raccoons, 'possums, swamp dogs, and an immense variety of birds, including seven species of woodpeckers. Keefe tells of adopting a young, wounded pileated woodpecker and rearing him to adulthood, even teaching him how to hunt for grubs.

However, few creatures of the swamp were as loveable or affectionate as Keefe's devoted pet. Most were vicious and deadly, like the 'gators and the bears, the venomous rattlesnakes, and the aggressive cottonmouth moccasins. Keefe dramatically recounts his close encounters with all these creatures, and he shares the valuable lessons he learned in the process. In particular, he learned that rattlesnakes are particularly "testy" during the "dog days" of late July and August.
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Another animal found in the swamp but not indigenous to it is the swamp dog. These mongrel dogs are a motley crew and are used by the locals inhabitants for hunting such animals as wild hogs and marauding bears. They can be as ferocious as a bobcat and as tough as an alligator. Keefe writes that the bear dogs, who hunt in packs, seem to be a "gregarious lot," different from the hog dogs who appear to be "antisocial loners." Hog dogs are a breed apart, fearless and rugged. A hog dog will "latch on to a hog's ear...and not let loose regardless of the consequences." Wild hogs that are captured are fattened up on corn until they are fit to eat. Keefe found out that the same process is used to make 'possum edible. No one in his right mind should attempt to eat a 'possum that has not been fattened up on corn.

Most importantly, there are the swamp people: Ol' Ben, intrepid moonshiner and erstwhile logger (when the revenuers were snooping around) and Obadiah Carver, a "remnant" of those , fiercely independent people who settled the swampland and who were "isolated for a hundred and fifty years from mainstream America." Obadiah happened to be alone in the swamp on the day of the total eclipse of the sun in 1973. He must have thought the world was coming to an end. Then there is Chandler Register, a Senior Woodsman who knew the woods as well or better than anyone, and Artie C who ran the only cafe in the town of Fargo. A recurring character in the stories is Keefe's logging buddy and partner in crime Junior Chancy with whom he has a number of harrowing adventures.

However, life in the Great Swamp was not always a struggle. Even in the harshest of lives there can be moments of pleasure. For Keefe and others who lived on the edge of the swamp there were gatherings at Artie C's cafe, the "heart of Fargo" where no one was a stranger, and playing in a band Keefe and his friends called The Flatwoods Band. Music and moonshine filled the piney woods.

After living and working for five years in the Okefenokee, the timber company transferred Keefe to Alabama where he now lives, but he never forgot the place that nurtured him and helped him begin to rebuild his life. "Stories From the Okefenokee" is his tribute to the Great Swamp and the people and wildlife that call it home.

Bob Keefe grew up in California and received a degree in Forestry from UC Berkeley.
Following five years in the Marine Corps (including a 13 month tour of duty as a helicopter pilot in Viet Nam), he spent the next five years working for a timber company in the tiny town of Fargo, GA, on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. Today Keefe and his wife live in Cullman, Alabama, where he owns Berkeley Bob's, a charming 1960's style coffee house and deli featuring gourmet coffees, homemade soups, delicious sandwiches, daily specials, and live music.

"Stories From the Okefenokee" can be purchased as an e-book at the Nook online at
Barnes and Noble. Anyone wishing to purchase a hard copy may contact Bob Keefe through his Facebook page at Berkeley Bob’s Coffee House.

---- by Penne J. Laubenthal

 

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