Way back in the 1940s my father was a local kid with smarts. Born into a farming family in Butler County, Ala., he grew up loving his family, the land, animals and hunting and fishing. He was even working his way into the timber industry: The folks running W.T. Smith Lumber in Chapman gave him a summer job learning to cruise and mark timber, and he planned to attend Auburn University and go into forestry. Problem was, a nearby fish pond in the tiny community of Brushy Creek intervened, and Auburn offered him a chance to make a career out of what he really loved—fishing.
Once he went to Auburn and realized they offered a degree in fisheries and pond management, the forestry school plans went out the window. So did the nice job working outdoors in some of the prettiest pine timber imaginable: After the mill bosses realized he’d gone into fisheries, my father was reassigned to a sweltering green chain in the bowels of the mill in Chapman for his summer job. My grandparents also had to endure ribbing from the locals who’d say they thought Wayne already knew how to fish upon learning he had changed his major from forestry.
Daddy went on to an amazing career in fisheries, worked for Auburn University from 1959 to 1994, helped build the Southern U.S. catfish farming industry and traveled to more than 100 countries spreading the aquaculture gospel. But he never lost sight of the land and its people and how they interacted and influence each other. Steeped in America’s postwar can-do approach, he was well educated in agricultural inputs and outputs, and even more well versed in the circle of life.
But he would also do things like tell me one morning, when we were squirrel hunting in a magical place in northwest Butler County where soil types converge along the ancient Cambrian Ridge and create amazing geography and ecosystems, that “One day they’re going to clear-cut this place, and I’m gonna cry.” When you’re six or seven years old and the most powerful person in your world says something like that, you sit up and take notice. Of course, Daddy was no preservationist, but had a deep appreciation for the Creation and the sublime, of beauty and utility sometimes in opposition, and sometimes bound together.
In the early 1970s his father-in-law bought a “pretend farm” near Greenville, Ala. for when he retired a decade later, a place to relax and putter around with a truck farm garden and fruit tree orchard. (He wasn’t much of a true truck farmer since he ended up giving most of the produce away to friends and neighbors.) Meanwhile, Daddy was in hog heaven. He built a pond that’s still delivering fish and fun almost 50 years later. After convincing my grandfather no crops would grow on the sandy top of a large legacy field, he planted a couple acres of pines that are now 30+ years old and need harvesting. He helped coordinate getting the property logged and replanted. He planted wildlife mast trees around the property, and he mightily fought the kudzu that always festered in the railroad bed along one side of the property.
While Daddy came from a family of agrarians and buttoned down farmers, my mother’s side of the family were sawmill and logging camp people. Daddy used to tease Mama and call her a “city girl” because her family lived for a while in a little house on the north end of the Chapman mill town along the railroad tracks near the Rocky Creek bridge. Better to be upstream and upwind in those days, my grandfather used to say.