An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of June 9, 2002
Issued from the woods just south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

CHARLES'S CHOIR

The other day the plantation manager hired Charles, a local day-worker, to come sweep out the Chapel. Charles and I have been buddies for years so when trouble arose he came to me at the garden.

"What's that sound down in the Chapel?" he asked, and I replied that it should be quiet there.

"It sounds like people singing in a choir," he insisted, and this was so unlikely that I just laughed, figured he'd heard echoes of birdcalls, and suggested "Must be ghosts... "

A very worried look spread across Charles's face. He said he wasn't going back there unless I went with him. When I got there I found that the manager had placed a high-frequency "squeaker" in the chapel, one of those things supposed to clear out rodents by hurting their ears.

After we'd shared a good laugh I got back to my work and began thinking about what different worlds people must live in, depending on whether they can or cannot believe in ghosts.

When I lived in Belize most of my friends closed their windows at dusk, despite the heat and humidity, because they believed that malignant spirits entered on the night air. (Probably the belief arose to explain the effects of malaria-bearing mosquitoes entering windows at dusk.) The cook at the jungle lodge where I worked swore that once he had met "duendes," a Belizean kind of spirit without thumbs, who simply vanished as he passed them on an isolated road at night.

When I was a child, I was a believer. My parents told me how a swampy woods in view of our western Kentucky farm was so big that it connected with "Black Lake Bottoms," which everyone knew as a place in which hunters had disappeared, a swamp so vast that it was actually part of all other of the Earth's combined wildernesses. I heard from my mother about shimmering, pale Swamp Angles there who with their very long fingernails hovered above the moldering ground, ready to tear out the eyes of anyone who entered at night. I remember as a child lying in bed quivering as the owls in that woods hooted, and the hoots echoed off the swamp's big trees.

In the 70s when the price of soybeans soared, the vast swamps of my childhood were converted into soybean fields. Maybe this occasioned the biggest psychological shift of my whole life. The day they bulldozed and burned the last big forest near our farm and I saw that where owls had hooted among Swamp Angels there was just mud and weeds, my relationship with the metaphysical world was changed forever.

But, the question remains: Is it more beautiful for the mind to project Swamp Angels into a forest and to thrill at the prospect of meeting them there, or to know what's "really" in that forest, and to find that now your thrills are of a subtler, more lonely kind? Facebook Icon.