Study Guide

Alligator Bayou Man and the Natural World

By Donna Jo Napoli

Man and the Natural World

A giant cat comes out of the woods. Tawny brown sleeks his back and white flecks his head and shoulders. […] He flicks the tip of his long tail and I think I might wet myself. That cat weighs more than me. (1.17)

We think this is an appropriate reaction to seeing a predatory animal that could catch you and spit out your bones without breaking a sweat.

The Mississippi river thrills me. Wide and rolling. […] The river is different from the sea. No waves, no tides. But it calms me, all the same. The air above the water shimmers, alive with spirits. Ghosts—but good ghosts. It makes my soul feel… cradled. (8.5)

What a beautiful description of how the river affects Calo, right? We love water, too.

His mouth is open wide and full of cotton.

I stare.

Ben takes the cotton out of his mouth and laughs as though he's the most hilarious person in the world.

"Cottonmouth snakes," says Charles. "In the swamps. By the time you see them, you already bit. So you might as well not even look." (9.12-15)

Well this is one way to deal with potential death: laugh it off. And yet another way might be to not go in there in the first place so you don't have to encounter such a creature. For the record, Shmoop likes the second way better.

"Are they pulling our leg?" he asks in Sicilian.

"They must be," I say back in Sicilian. "Only crazy people would go into the swamps if it was that dangerous." But my heart's beating double time. (9.19)

Nope, Calo and Cirone—they aren't joking. Our heart beats double time too when they agree to go in.

Rock and Charles pull long, wide knives out of leather sheaths on their backs. Ben sneers at me. "No bush knife?"

I don't know what I've done to make him dislike me. "Here. This way ya'll can be useful at least." He hands me the lantern and Cirone the food satchel. (9.34)

Humans—we're so unprepared for the natural world. No night vision. No claws or tough hide. This is why the boys bring a bunch of useful gadgets—knowing what to expect in the wilderness is our gift.

You can't see more than ten steps ahead. The cut-off canes slap back at us and their sharp ends poke hard.

And then the canes end, and it's like we've passed through a door in to a magic world of gauze-covered graceful shapes. The air is hazy and heavy with water. I've entered someone's dream. (9.36)

Wow—Calo really appreciates nature. We can tell because he describes this place with so much detail, which means he must be looking really closely.

I reach my hand over and cup the water and bring it to my lips.

Rock slaps my hand away. "Swamp water make you so sick, by the time you stop rolling you be late for Christmas." (9.77-78)

So things with giant mouths and razor sharp teeth aren't the only dangers in the swamp… The natural world is crawling with things that Calo needs to learn about—that everyone in town should know—to be safe.

"That foot got mashed," says Rock, "but it ain't even bleeding."

"You got those good shoes to thank," says Ben.

"We all owe thanks," says Rock. "The swamp nearly got us tonight."

We're silent a moment. (9.152-155)

Here the boys realize how much bigger and more ruthless nature is than them, even though they conquered one small part of the natural world (that would be the alligator). This moment of respect tells a lot about how the boys are growing up.

That swamp is a live thing with an empty heart that beats anyway. No mercy, no mercy, no mercy, no mercy—

Drumming till you lose your mind. (10.80-81)

Calogero is still scared of his experience back in the swamp. Can you blame him? Is there a way he could get over his fear? Should he, or is it smart to keep it?

"You said you know everything about birds. It's true. How'd you learn?"

[…]

"I got sick when I was eight. Ran a fever all winter. […] All I did was stay by the window and listen to the birds." […]

"That must have been hard…"

"Sure. But it was wonderful learning birds right. I love their calls. They use music to talk. And they chatterboxes like you wouldn't believe. They talk all the time…" (14.103-107)

One of the joys of being human is learning as much as possible about the natural world—it can be so thrilling to know… and so helpful to safety and survival too.

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