January 7, 2014

Wade into ‘Okefenokee Swamp Wild & Natural’

     One of the most popular items that I put into gift bags last month took 30 years to germinate and sprout onto coffee tables.  Happenstance, shared passion and hard work made “Okefenokee Swamp Wild & Natural” bloom into 150-plus pages of full-color, just in time for Christmas.  
     So, how did it get started?
     Experts say the swamp has been around for 6,500 years, growing out of the Atlantic coastal plain in Southeast Georgia.  The headwaters of the Suwanee and St. Marys Rivers are in the swamp, and most of the watershed flows toward the Gulf of Mexico.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.
     The swamp has an ancient history.  But the latest book about Georgia’s natural wonder that slips over into Florida is a relative newcomer, stemming from a chance meeting of Don Berryhill and Wayne Morgan.  As a summer worker 35 years ago, Wayne fell under the supervision and spell of Don, who is a resident expert on the 438,000 acres making up “The Land of Trembling Earth.”
     Both men knew—right away—that they had a mutual love for the Okefenokee.  What they didn’t know was that Wayne, almost by accident, would become a world-class nature photographer who could team eye-popping illustrations with Don’s encyclopedic knowledge of the swamp. 
     This book wouldn’t have happened unless Wayne hadn’t “died” twice in 1999.  His doctor explained that in both of Wayne’s falls following heart attacks, hitting the ground hard restarted his heart.  With a pacemaker installed, the 35-year-old had an epiphany and a new hobby.  Picking up a Nikon camera, he put down his hunting and fishing gear.

Brantley County’s Wayne Morgan took thousands of photographs to provide selections for his third book, “Okefenokee Swamp Wild & Natural.”  His longtime friend, Don Berryhill of Waycross, is the author.
    Tens of thousands of shutter clicks and a dozen years later, Wayne published his first book, “Satilla Solitude,” about his favorite river, the Satilla, near his Brantley County home.  The black-water river snakes 260 miles through Southeast Georgia on its way to lick salt in St. Andrew Sound.  
     News of the photographic masterpiece swept through the region, and Wayne’s phone lit up in 2011.  One of the first calls was from his former boss, Don Berryhill, who had reconnected with Wayne during cleanup campaigns along the Satilla.  Soon, the two nature enthusiasts were brainstorming about an Okefenokee book.
     Another of the calls was from me.  I wanted to meet the man behind the camera and “Satilla Solitude.”  And after a jaunt with Wayne to Zirkle, his favorite sanctuary on the Little Satilla, we lamented about littering on the river.  Seeing trash strewn on the sugar-white sandbars spawned a children’s book: “Kase for the Environment.”   Wayne’s photos depicted the contrast between nature’s beauty and piles of trash. In 2012, I wrote the narrative, speaking in the child-like voice of Wayne’s grandson, Kase.
     But even before his second book was off the press, Wayne and Don were wading into their swamp book.  Balancing his nighttime duties as a mechanic in CSX’s Waycross rail yard, Wayne spent much of 2013’s daylight in trips to the Okefenokee, many with 80-year-old Don.  They were determined their book would be unique and accurate. Their perfectionist drives make them an ideal match.  
After 30 years of procrastination, Don Berryhill, 
an expert on the Okefenokee, teamed with photographer 
Wayne Morgan to publish a book on the 
438,000-acre swamp that spills out of 
Southeast Georgia into Florida.
     Four days before Christmas 2013, a big truck with boxes of “Okefenokee Wild & Natural” backed up to Wayne’s door.  Santa demands sold half the inventory before year-end.  Without your having to brave winter’s bite or the jaws of hungry gators, Wayne’s photographs plop you in the middle of about 650 square miles of jaw-dropping nature.  It’s almost as if critters whisper, “Here’s Wayne.  Let’s look our best.”  And then there’re easy-to-understand details that Don writes so well.  Beyond the black water, cypress trees, alligators, bears and birds, I am fascinated by the swamp’s history, its old-time “swampers” and their lore.  
     If you’d like to learn more, visit: www.waynemorganartistry.com.  I commend this coffee-table trophy to you.  And get ready.  The seed for Wayne’s fourth book is already planted.   I’ll tell you about it—later.