3 out of 4 stars
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Sports cars, hairpieces, and younger women may conjure images of a mid-life crisis. But what about hunting venomous snakes and training alligators in the swamps of South Georgia? It’s certainly not a conventional remedy, but for Dick Flood, it was lifesaving.
It was 1973 and Nashville entertainer Dick Flood was at a crossroads; life on the road had dissolved two marriages, and his career was flailing. Feeling broken, Flood loaded everything in his jeep and hit the road. The next eight years would become the subject of his 2017 memoir, Swampwise. Fueled by his faith, Flood headed for Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp Park, a large wildlife tourist attraction. There he secured a job giving lectures about snakes and took on the name Okefenokee Joe.
Each chapter brings new wildlife adventures, as Joe’s responsibilities grew to include deer, black bears, alligators, and various smaller animals. From Joe’s dog Swampy, who easily had nine lives, to Oscar the ancient fourteen-foot alligator, that swamp was somehow making sense of life again for Joe. His famous gator calls and wildlife lectures drew crowds eager to learn the value of respecting and understanding animals, and most importantly, leaving them alone. “If you don’t need it leave it!” is Joe’s mantra.
There is plenty to ponder in the pages of Swampwise. Does it work to have captive and wild animals living in close proximity? What is the best fate for rescued wild animals? Does “edutainment” engender compassion for wildlife, or is it sometimes exploitive of the animals? Okefenokee Joe lives his answers in the pages of the book. Communing with wildlife is always unpredictable. Spoiler alert: Be warned, as there are some difficult scenes in the book, such as Joe’s beloved dog Swampy being killed by an alligator and an enclosure of deer being slaughtered by a pack of dogs.
Swampwise spans 200 pages and is divided into fifteen chapters. This provides a useful structure and facilitates comfortable pacing of the narrative. The text does contain quite a few editing errors. One chronic comma error accounted for most of the editing problems. The author also tended to overuse the exclamation point, which rendered it less effective. In general, though, the folksy language flowed smoothly and was easy to read.
I enjoyed Swampwise very much, and I rate it 3 out of 4 stars. While the editing errors don’t allow a perfect score, I imagine adults of all ages will enjoy the book. I appreciate the author's primary message that wildlife is to be respected and left alone. Nature and animal lovers will relate to Joe’s devotion to wildlife and his progression as a naturalist. If you are squeamish, there are just a few scenes you might want to skip over. I suspect country music fans will appreciate Joe’s story and want to look into his music. And indeed, anyone who has been faced with an unexpected bend in the road of life will benefit from this folk hero’s journey.
Since leaving the swamp three decades ago, Joe has married his love of nature with his musical talent, speaking and performing regularly at conservation events. With hundreds of songs to his credit, the octogenarian and self-proclaimed wildlife evangelist is still sharing his message. “Each of us, as individuals, need to be more careful every hour of every day, how we treat the life in the natural world around us. Our cooperation with the natural scheme of life on earth is more essential now than ever!”
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