Alabama’s pitcher plant bogs aren’t exactly a secret, but relatively few people have gotten a close look at their wonders. That’s about to change, thanks to the debut of a film exploring “The Carnivorous Kingdom.”
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians commissioned journalist, author and naturalist Ben Raines to develop the project in 2019, with the Sierra Club’s Alabama Chapter providing additional support. The resulting hourlong documentary feature will get a free public premiere on Monday, Aug. 22, at the Mobile Saenger Theatre, an event also sponsored by the Alabama Coastal Foundation and the Saenger.
Two days later, on Wednesday, Aug. 24, “The Carnivorous Kingdom” will get its first airing on Alabama Public Television. It’s scheduled for 7 p.m.
Raines has considerable experience in documenting natural wonders, in projects such as the book “Saving America’s Amazon,” which explores the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, and the film “The Underwater Forest,” about the remnants of an ancient cypress forest submerged in the Gulf of Mexico.
But he said some unique challenges affected this project. First came what he referred to as a “double whammy:” A few weeks after he received funding for the film in spring 2019, researchers confirmed that wreckage he’d identified upriver from Mobile was in fact the ruins of the slave ship Clotilda. That put him under the gun to deliver on a book deal.
“I had to turn around and start cranking on the book, which was due that February,” he said.
After he turned in the manuscript for “The Last Slave Ship: The True Story of How Clotilda was Found, her Descendants, and an Extraordinary Reckoning,” 2020 brought another disruption: The COVID-19 pandemic.
Raines said that the Poarch Creek funding allowed him to load up on new cameras and lenses to shoot the work in brilliant 4K definition. But pandemic shutdowns meant that for a while at least, many scientific institutions wouldn’t let their researchers venture out into the field with him, Raines said.
“So I spent two years alone in the bogs,” he said. “I just spent a ton of time filming, and it really pays off in the finished product, I think.”
The bogs themselves are remnants of an ancient ecosystem that once covered a huge swath of the Southeast, with longleaf pine savannahs – much more open and airy than common pine forests – providing ideal conditions for carnivorous plants to thrive in wetlands below the longleaf canopy.
In some places, conservation and restoration efforts have kept those ecosystems, with their wildly distinctive, often alien-looking carnivorous flora, intact. Probably the best-known of these is the Ruth McClellan Abronski Splinter Hill Bog Preserve, an easily accessible site not far off I-65 in Baldwin County. Preservation efforts elsewhere, notably along the Perdido River, also are restoring longleaf landscapes. It’s still a far cry from what once was.
“That’s part of the call of the movie,” said Raines. “This is another incredibly rich habitat on a national and international level that we’ve almost lost all of. There are very few places you can go see pitcher plants left, in Alabama. And this was a dominant habitat. Fairhope should all be pitcher plant bogs. You drive down Rangeline Road and 193 on the way to Dauphin Island and you see pitcher plants in the ditches, because that should all be pitcher plant bogs. But we’ve drained it and let junk grow up where the pitchers can’t compete, so they die out. My hope is that people understand this habitat, after watching the film, and its value.”
They’ll certainly have a lot to look at. Raines said his new equipment allowed him to indulge in his love of macro photography.
“There’s a lot of very up-close, intimate stuff that we’re going to be seeing,” he said. “You know, praying mantises 30 feet tall on the Saenger screen.”
“We have the most diverse pitcher-plant bogs in the country,” Raines said. “We have nine out of the 11 pitcher plant species in America in Alabama. And a number of those are found only in Alabama. So we’re the global epicenter for what they call the new-world pitcher plants.”
The film isn’t just about plants. Among the people featured in it is Sehoy Thrower of the Poarch Creeks, a woman who’s working to recover plant knowledge lost during the Trail of Tears and other persecution of Native Americans.
“She has discovered in the historical record that a number of Indian tribes survived smallpox using pitcher plants,” said Raines. “She has this poignant quote where she says, ‘I’m here today because my ancestors survived smallpox thanks to pitcher plants.”
Raines said the tribe has been making efforts of its own to buy and conserve land where bogs remain. “They’re becoming a big voice for conservation in the state through these purchases … and that’s a fantastic thing,” he said.
Raines said he hopes people come away from the film with a fresh appreciation of just how marvelous Alabama’s natural treasures are, and how important it is to preserve them.
“Just like with America’s Amazon I wanted to stir people to understand we have something incredible, we have just done a terrible job taking care of it and we should start before it’s too late,” he said.
That hope was seconded by some of his backers.
“Our interest in protecting the environment and our natural resources in general is what we’re all about,” said Carol Adams-Davis of the Sierra Club. This niche is “such an interesting part of Alabama’s ecosystem” that she things it will inspire a sense of “environmental awareness and marvel” in viewers.
“The way that he shot it, the videography, is just outstanding,” said Mark Berte, executive director of the Alabama Coastal Foundation. “Not only will people learn, but they also will be amazed by the footage they will see.”
Berte said he hopes the film helps promote interest is “smart development.” “We try to kind of meet people wherever they are to curtail development around these very sensitive areas,” he said.
While the Saenger screening is free, people wishing to attend are asked to register at the foundation’s website, www.joinacf.org. The theater’s doors will open at 5 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 22, with complimentary beverages and popcorn available. “The Carnivorous Kingdom” will screen at 5:30, followed by a Q&A session with Raines. Raines said that after discussion the movie, he will be joined by Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, for some additional discussion of the ship.
Raines said that representatives of Mobile Botanical Gardens also would be on hand, setting up pitcher plant bog displays in the Saenger lobby and handing out pitcher plants for people to take home and plant.
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