Back in 2005, scientists in Arkansas said they had seen an ivory-billed woodpecker. The news sent an almost electric shock through the scientific world, because this bird, one of the largest woodpeckers, was long thought to be extinct.
The reports captured the imagination of the non-scientific world because of the majesty and mystery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. In fact, the bird has the nickname “The Lord God Bird” because of its size and scarcity. A hushed “Lord God” was often the awed response of people who saw it.
Writer and former University of Georgia English professor Dr. James Kilgo saw other connections between this bird and the majesty and mystery of God. His 1988 book, Deep Enough for Ivorybills, began as a column he wrote for the Athens Banner-Herald that contained his hunting and fishing tales. These stories, he found when he compiled and re-wrote the columns in book form, were really about his own hunt for a deep place in the soul, a quest for a blank spot on the map and in the heart that contains room enough for both beauty and mystery—a wilderness “deep enough for ivorybills.”
The book’s opening scene masterfully sets the stage. Kilgo remembers a boyhood trip from his home in Darlington, S.C., to Myrtle Beach. As his family crossed the Big Pee Dee River Bridge, his father observed, “I bet there’s still ivorybills in there.”
“Really?” the young Kilgo wondered.
“Could be,” his dad replied. “There’re places in that swamp nobody’s ever been in.”
That opening story became the theme of the book: to go, or at least to approach, places “nobody’s ever been in,” searching for mystery, beauty, and truth.
Jim Kilgo did that in his own life. In the “publish or perish” culture of the modern university, he decided instead to become a master teacher. He poured himself into his classes and his students, winning at least five campus-wide teaching awards—that on a campus with so many teachers that almost no one else won the award even once.
In an environment hostile to Christianity, Kilgo’s Christian faith was also well known. He was never ideological or dogmatic in the classroom, but he made sure that his students knew and understood Flannery O’Connor’s famous assessment of Southern writers, that they could “outwrite anybody in the country because [they have] the Bible and a little history.”
Kilgo eventually did publish. When Deep Enough for Ivorybills came out, he was in his 40s. It instantly put him on the literary map. The New York Times reviewed it glowingly. Ivorybills received favorable comparisons to Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Indeed, Dillard became a fan of Ivorybills and she and Kilgo ultimately became friends. With this mid-life success, Kilgo made up for lost time, over the next decade publishing a critically acclaimed novel and several books of non-fiction.
But in the early 1990s, as his literary star was on the rise, he entered a swamp that contained other mysteries and other truths. He was diagnosed with cancer. I would occasionally see him during this time, or speak with him on the phone, and he would call his cancer a “damned thing.” I knew him to be neither glib nor profane. Ever the master teacher and always precise with language, he used these words to help me understand what cancer was teaching him: that God is a God of life, and anything that destroys life would—count on it—be damned. Kilgo was simply doing with his cancer what he had always done with the mysteries he had encountered: look as deeply into it as he dared, and tell the truth about what he saw. I detected something just short of glee—call it joy—in calling cancer a “damned thing.” It was Kilgo’s way of telling me that God, not this cancer, was sovereign, and that he was not—and I should not—be afraid.
But the cancer, we must admit, did win a temporary victory. Jim Kilgo’s body finally succumbed on Dec. 8, 2002—14 years ago this month. He was 61 years old. His family and members of his church gathered around him on that last day. They prayed and sang hymns. During the decade since his death, critical appreciation of his work has grown. In 2011, he joined Flannery O’Connor, James Dickey, and W.E.B. DeBois in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
When I heard about the possible sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas, I thought of Jim Kilgo. I think he would have delighted in the news, though he may have feigned disappointment that the bird wasn’t discovered in his beloved Pee Dee River swamp.
Of course, it’s important to note that since 2005 we have had no other ivorybill sightings. Some have even doubted that those sightings in Arkansas were legitimate. Not me. I continue to believe the great ivory-billed woodpecker, the “Lord God Bird,” is out there. Why? Because Jim Kilgo taught me—by his life and his work—that just because you don’t see something right away doesn’t mean it’s not there. Some river swamps—like the human heart itself—yield their secrets only slowly. But looking deeply into these mysterious places and seeing what God has for us there … well, it is always worth the cost.
Warren Cole Smith has been a friend ever since we met for an interview at a coffee shop a few years back and we spent the whole time talking about Annie Dillard and Flannery O’Connor. Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith. This piece was first published at World.wng.org. –The Proprietor